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Hamish Jolly: A shark-deterrent wetsuit (and it's not what you think)

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Hamish Jolly, an ocean swimmer in Australia, wanted a wetsuit that would deter a curious shark from mistaking him for a potential source of nourishment. (Which, statistically, is rare, but certainly a fate worth avoiding.) Working with a team of scientists, he and his friends came up with a fresh approach — not a shark cage, not a suit of chain-mail, but a sleek suit that taps our growing understanding of shark vision.

- Inventor, ocean swimmer
Hamish Jolly brings his entrepreneurial eye to the rare but viscerally terrifying issue of shark attacks. Full bio

Scientific breakthrough,
00:13
the kind that can potentially save lives,
00:14
can sometimes be lying right out in the open
00:17
for us to discover,
00:19
in the evolved, accumulated body
00:20
of human anecdote, for example,
00:23
or in the time-tested adaptations
00:25
that we observe in the natural world around us.
00:27
Science starts with observation,
00:31
but the trick is to identify the patterns and signatures
00:33
that we might otherwise dismiss
00:37
as myth or coincidence,
00:39
isolate them, and test them with scientific rigor.
00:41
And when we do, the results will often surprise.
00:44
Western Australia has had a particular problem
00:48
with shark attacks over the last three years,
00:50
unfortunately and tragically culminating
00:54
in five fatal shark attacks in a 10-month period
00:56
during that time.
00:59
But Western Australia is not alone in this.
01:01
The incident of shark engagements on humans
01:03
is escalating worldwide.
01:06
And so it's not surprising, perhaps,
01:08
that in July of this year,
01:10
Shark Attack Mitigation Systems in collaboration
01:11
with the University of Western
Australia Oceans Institute
01:14
made an announcement which captured the attention
01:17
of the worldwide media and of ocean users
01:20
worldwide,
01:22
and that was around the development of technology
01:24
to mitigate or reduce the risk of shark attack
01:25
based on the science of what sharks can see.
01:28
And I have for you today
01:31
the story of that journey,
01:33
but also the notion that science can be
01:35
as powerful as a translator
01:37
as it can be for invention.
01:39
When we began this process,
01:43
we were looking, it was about three years ago,
01:45
and we'd just had the first two fatal shark attacks
01:48
in Western Australia,
01:51
and by chance, in a previous role,
01:53
I happened to be having dinner with Harry Butler.
01:55
Now Harry Butler, who most Australians
would know is a famous naturalist,
01:58
had spent a lot of time in the marine environment.
02:02
Harry Butler is a precursor, if you like,
02:04
to the late Steve Irwin.
02:06
When I asked him about
02:08
what the solution to the problem might be,
02:09
the answer was quite surprising.
02:13
He said, "Take a black wetsuit,
02:14
band it in yellow stripes like a bumblebee,
02:16
and you'll be mimicking the warning systems
02:19
of most marine species."
02:21
I didn't think about that much at the time,
02:23
and it wasn't until the next three
fatal shark attacks happened,
02:25
and it caused me to think,
02:29
maybe there's some merit to this idea.
02:30
And I turned to the web
02:33
to see if there might be some clues.
02:34
And it turns out the web is awash
02:36
with this sort of evidence that supports
02:39
this sort of thinking.
02:41
So biologically, there are plenty of species
02:42
that display banding or patterns, warning patterns,
02:44
to either be cryptical in the water
02:47
or warn against being attacked,
02:49
not the least of which is the pilot fish
02:51
which spends a big slab of its life
02:53
around the business end of a shark.
02:56
On the human side, Walter Starck, an oceanographer,
02:58
has been painting his wetsuit since the 1970s,
03:01
and anthropologically,
03:04
Pacific island tribes painted themselves in bands
03:05
in a sea snake ceremony
03:09
to ward off the shark god.
03:11
So what's going on here?
03:13
Is this an idea lying wide out in the open
03:15
for us to consider and define?
03:18
We know that sharks use a range of sensors
03:21
when they engage, particularly for attack,
03:25
but the sight sensor is the one that they use
03:29
to identify the target, and particularly
03:31
in the last number of meters before the attack.
03:32
It makes sense to pay attention
to the biological anecdote
03:36
because that's time-tested evolution
03:39
over many millennia.
03:41
But isn't human anecdote also an evolution of sorts,
03:43
the idea that there's a kernel of truth
03:47
thought to be important,
03:48
passed down from generation to generation,
03:50
so that it actually ends up shaping human behavior?
03:53
I wanted to test this idea.
03:57
I wanted to put some science
03:58
to this anecdotal evidence,
03:59
because if science could support this concept,
04:02
then we might have at least part of the solution
04:04
to shark attack right under our very nose.
04:06
To do that, I needed some experts
04:09
in shark vision and shark neurology,
04:11
and a worldwide search, again,
04:13
led to the University of W.A.
04:14
on the doorstep here, with the Oceans Institute.
04:16
And professor Nathan Hart and his team
04:18
had just written a paper which tells us,
04:21
confirms that predatory sharks see
04:23
in black and white, or grayscale.
04:26
So I called up Nathan,
04:29
a little bit sheepishly, actually, about this idea
04:31
that maybe we could use these patterns and shapes
04:32
to produce a wetsuit to try and
mitigate the risk of shark attack,
04:34
and fortunately, he thought that was a good idea.
04:38
So what ensued is a collaborative bit of research
04:40
supported by the West Australian State Government.
04:42
And we did three key things.
04:45
The first is that we mapped the characteristics,
04:48
the physical characteristics of the eyes
04:50
of the three main predatory sharks,
04:52
so the great white, tiger and bull shark.
04:54
We did that genetically
04:58
and we did that anatomically.
05:00
The next thing we did was to understand,
05:02
using complex computer modeling,
05:04
what that eye can see
05:06
at different depths, distances,
05:08
light conditions, and water clarity in the ocean.
05:10
And from there, we were able to pinpoint
05:14
two key characteristics:
05:15
what patterns and shapes would present the wearer
05:17
as hidden or hard to make out in the water, cryptic,
05:20
and what patterns and shapes might provide
05:23
the greatest contrast but provide the greatest
05:25
breakup of profile
05:27
so that that person wasn't confused for shark prey
05:29
or shark food.
05:33
The next thing we needed to do was to convert this
05:35
into wetsuits that people might actually wear,
05:37
and to that end, I invited Ray Smith,
05:40
a surfer, industrial designer, wetsuit designer,
05:42
and in fact the guy that designed
the original Quiksilver logo,
05:46
to come over and sit with the science team
05:48
and interpret that science
05:50
into aesthetic wetsuits that
people might actually wear.
05:54
And here's an example of one of the first drawings.
05:57
So this is what I call a "don't eat me" wetsuit.
06:00
So this takes that banding idea,
06:03
takes that banding idea, it's highly visible,
06:07
provides a highly disruptive profile,
06:09
and is intended to prevent the shark
06:11
from considering that you would be ordinary food,
06:13
and potentially even create confusion for the shark.
06:16
And this one's configured to go with a surfboard.
06:19
You can see that dark, opaque panel on the front,
06:23
and it's particularly better for the surface,
06:26
where being backlit and providing a silhouette
06:28
is problematic.
06:31
Second iteration is the cryptic wetsuit,
06:33
or the one which attempts to hide the wearer
06:36
in the water column.
06:37
There are three panels on this suit,
06:39
and in any given conditions,
06:41
one or more of those panels
06:42
will match the reflective spectra of the water
06:43
so as to disappear fully or partially,
06:46
leaving the last panel or panels
06:49
to create a disruptive profile in the water column.
06:51
And this one's particularly well-suited
06:54
to the dive configuration,
06:56
so when you're deeper under the water.
06:58
So we knew that we had
07:01
some really solid science here.
07:03
We knew, if you wanted to stand out,
07:05
you needed to look stripy,
07:07
and we knew if you wanted to be cryptic,
07:08
you needed to look like this.
07:09
But the acid test is always going to be,
07:11
how would sharks really behave
07:13
in the context of these patterns and shapes.
07:14
And testing to simulate a person in a wetsuit
07:17
in the water with a predatory shark
07:20
in a natural environment
07:21
is actually a lot harder than you might think.
07:23
(Laughter)
07:25
So we have to bait the rig,
07:28
because we need to get the statistical number
07:31
of samples through to get the scientific evidence,
07:32
and by baiting the rig,
07:35
we're obviously changing shark behavior.
07:36
We can't put humans in the water.
07:38
We're ethically precluded from even using
07:40
humanoid shapes and baiting them up in the water.
07:43
But nevertheless, we started the testing process
07:46
in January of this year,
07:48
initially with tiger sharks
07:50
and subsequently with great white sharks.
07:51
The way we did that
07:54
was to get a perforated drum which is full of bait,
07:56
wrap it in a neoprene skin,
08:00
and then run two stereo underwater cameras
08:02
to watch how the shark
actually engages with that rig.
08:05
And because we use stereo,
08:08
we can capture all the statistics
on how big the shark is,
08:10
what angle it comes in at, how quickly it leaves,
08:13
and what its behavior is
08:15
in an empirical rather than a subjective way.
08:17
Because we needed to
preserve the scientific method,
08:20
we ran a control rig
08:22
which was a black neoprene rig
08:24
just like a normal black wetsuit
08:28
against the, what we call,
08:30
SAMS technology rig.
08:31
And the results were not just exciting,
08:33
but very encouraging,
08:36
and today I would like to just give you a snapshot
08:37
of two of those engagements.
08:40
So here we've got a four-meter tiger shark
08:44
engaging the black control rig,
08:46
which it had encountered about
08:49
a minute and a half before.
08:50
Now that exact same shark had engaged,
09:11
or encountered this SAMS rig,
09:14
which is the Elude SAMS rig,
09:16
about eight minutes before,
09:17
and spent six minutes circling it, hunting for it,
09:18
looking for what it could
smell and sense but not see,
09:21
and this was the final engagement.
09:24
Great white sharks are more
confident than the tigers,
09:29
and here you see great white shark
09:32
engaging a control rig,
09:34
so a black neoprene wetsuit,
09:36
and going straight to the bottom,
09:37
coming up
09:39
and engaging.
09:42
In contrast to the SAMS technology rig,
09:46
this is the banded one,
09:48
where it's more tactile,
09:50
it's more investigative,
09:52
it's more apprehensive,
09:53
and shows a reluctance to come straight in and go.
09:55
(Applause)
10:08
So, it's important for us that all
the testing is done independently,
10:18
and the University of W.A. is doing the testing.
10:22
It'll be an ongoing process.
10:25
It's subject to peer review and subject to publication.
10:26
It's so important that this concept
10:29
is led with the science.
10:31
From the perspective of Shark
Attack Mitigation Systems,
10:33
we're a biotechnology licensing company,
10:35
so we don't make wetsuits ourselves.
10:38
We'll license others to do that.
10:40
But I thought you might be interested
10:42
in seeing what SAMS technology looks like
10:43
embedded in a wetsuit, and to that end,
10:45
for the first time, live, worldwide --
10:48
(Laughter) —
10:51
I can show you what biological adaptation,
10:53
science and design looks like in real life.
10:56
So I can welcome Sam, the surfer,
11:00
from this side. Where are you, Sam?
11:02
(Applause)
11:04
And Eduardo.
11:06
(Applause)
11:08
Cheers, mate.
11:10
Cheers.
11:12
Thanks, gentlemen. (Applause)
11:14
So what have we done here?
11:21
Well, to my mind, rather than take a blank sheet
11:22
and use science as a tool for invention,
11:25
we've paid attention to the biological evidence,
11:29
we've put importance to the
11:32
human anecdotal evidence,
11:33
and we've used science as a tool
11:35
for translation,
11:38
translation of something that was already there
11:40
into something that we can
use for the benefit of mankind.
11:42
And it strikes me that this idea of science
11:45
as a tool for translation rather than invention
11:47
is one that we can apply much more widely than this
11:50
in the pursuit of innovation.
11:53
After all, did the Wright brothers
11:55
discover manned flight,
11:57
or did they observe the biological fact of flight
11:59
and translate that mechanically, replicate it
12:02
in a way that humans could use?
12:06
As for the humble wetsuit,
12:08
who knows what oceanwear will look like
12:10
in two years' time, in five years' time
12:12
or in 50 years' time, but with this new thinking,
12:15
I'm guessing there's a fair chance
12:18
it won't be pure black.
12:19
Thank you.
12:21
(Applause)
12:23

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About the speaker:

Hamish Jolly - Inventor, ocean swimmer
Hamish Jolly brings his entrepreneurial eye to the rare but viscerally terrifying issue of shark attacks.

Why you should listen

Hamish Jolly is an ocean swimmer and kitesurfer who's committed to creating sustainable businesses through innovation management, business development, business management, program management, investment analysis and finance. In 2006, Jolly was listed in Western Australian Business News' 40 Under 40 business leaders.

Formerly Director of Strategy and Ventures at BankWest, Jolly was responsible for group strategy and mergers and acquisitions. He is a qualified Chartered Accountant and  fulfils a number of Board positions including Botanic Gardens and Parks Authority Board of Management (Kings Park). He most recently consulted as the Chief Executive Officer of Greening Australia, Australia’s largest environmental not-for-profit organisation and formerly a Director of Ajilon, where he was part of the leadership team for one of the top-3 management and technology consulting firms in Western Australia.

More profile about the speaker
Hamish Jolly | Speaker | TED.com