To a shark, a wetsuit looks like a seal. And a seal looks like a meal, to a shark.
Wetsuits do a good job of protecting surfers and swimmers against the cold of the ocean. But they are no defense against the teeth of a shark. And while there aren’t a lot of cases of mistaken identity, sharks do kill a few people and injure more, every year.
Maybe it’s not surprising then, that it was a research team in Australia, with the most fatal shark attacks in recent decades, which took on the challenge of toughening up wetsuits.
Their answer? Ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene fiber (UHMPE), a relatively new material, tough enough to be used already in the new combat helmets and some body armor. To create the new suits, the team used UHMPE to make fabric, and then blended that fabric with the neoprene already used to make most wetsuits.
The early results? Promising. No, it doesn’t stop a shark’s teeth altogether but the new suits do provide better protection against bites, and better odds of surviving a bite. And that’s good news for swimmers and surfers.
How we make UHMPE, by the way, is a series of chemical reactions that start with the petrochemical ethylene (that’s the back half of “polyethylene”). And as it happens, the rest of the wetsuit, the neoprene part, is also made from a petrochemical, butadiene, in that case.
And so maybe there is something to the old adage that oil and water don’t mix. Because those petrochemicals that make up these new protective wetsuits, are made from oil (and natural gas).