Protecting surfers from shark attacks

Macquarie University researchers discovered that most sharks are colour blind, and used that knowledge to create patented wetsuit camouflage designs that are now on the market. Now the team is looking at how sharks perceive surfboards.

Associate Professor Nathan Hart, his students and collaborators are taking a new look at the sensory world of sharks. Using a range of physiological, genetic and behavioural methods, they have obtained the clearest view yet of how sharks, including notorious predators such the great white shark, see the world around them. 

One of the most surprising discoveries has been that many, if not all, sharks are completely colour blind and so see the world in shades of grey. While a total lack of colour vision is relatively rare, it is seen in marine mammals such as seals, dolphins and whales.

This new information triggered a collaboration with wetsuit manufacturers to design camouflaged wetsuits for divers that should reduce the likelihood of a shark attack. The patented wetsuit technology is now available commercially and field testing is ongoing. 

More recent research has investigated the role of object shape and motion in triggering predatory behaviour in sharks. Working with international collaborators in South Africa, Nathan and his team observed the way white sharks interacted with seal-shaped decoys towed behind a boat. They’ve also compared the visual appearance of seals, surfboards and swimmers from the point of view of a shark, under controlled conditions at Taronga Zoo.  

This could potentially lead to new surfboard designs that alter the dark silhouette of the surfboard when viewed from below.

Banner image: A great white shark breaching on a control seal decoy, credit Nathan Hart