More Than Meets the Shark Eyes
Even at the best of times, the survival odds for new companies are daunting. There’s a twenty percent chance of failure in the first year, sixty percent chance within the first three years. When you take those odds into account, working for the man seems like a reasonable proposition for any entrepreneur-to-be.
However, chuck in a global pandemic, global shipping gridlock, and an acute case of economic uncertainty and the odds get longer again. The events of 2020, such as those just listed, were unprecedented. There’s simply nothing in the business manual advising a way through it. Guts and instinct is all you have.
“It was the craziest time to expand the business,” says Shanan Worrall of the COVID upheaval.
You know Shanan as the winner of the WSL’s Tube of the Year in 2017, see image below, and more recently as the fella behind Shark Eyes. Yeah, the shark deterrent stickers. Click here for an explanation of the science behind those.
A dedicated diver - ex-professional - and surfer, Shanan saw a gap in the market and made a play for it. Recently, a few apparel companies had crossed the surf/dive divide, yet no-one had done so with hardware.
Calling on their combined experience, Shanan and his wife designed a hybrid suit with the comfort of a surf suit, and the utility of a dive suit. Happy with the samples and specs, they prepared to place an order.
And then COVID hit.
“The normal lead time is around three months,” says Shanan of the time between paying for an order and receiving it, “but with COVID, each week it started jumping out further and further.” Four months, five, six, stretching out to twelve months, and this presented a problem.
“Everything pointed to COVID being a longer term thing,” explains Shanan of those uncertain days. “We realised that by placing a small order now, we might not be able to re-enter the market for another two or three years.”
Yet the opposite approach - going big - was equally as unnerving.
“We’re a new company, so we’ve got no prior sales history about the product to know if it’s even going to sell,” says Shanan. “I’ve always critiqued my equipment and I think this is a great no-compromise suit, but people don’t even know we make wetsuits.”
Planes were being grounded, ships stopped from sailing, the world was being shuttered, so Shanan and his wife had to make a hurried decision. “We gambled hard. We placed an order that was four times larger than what we originally intended.”
In short, they went big.
The manufacturing wasn’t without incident. “The factory we used makes both surf and dive suits,” explains Shanan, “each type is made in different departments.” As their suits have dive features such as a reloading pad on the chest, hip pocket, and fixed hood, the factory wanted to use the dive department but Shanan insisted they came from the surf section where comfort and finish quality are paramount. It was the first time surf suits had dive features included.
“The pocket was originally going to have a tourniquet in it,” says Shanan. “The plan was to sell them that way, however things didn’t line up to include it. Maybe in the next run.” The pocket, which sits at the side of the thigh, fits a tourniquet, though Shanan says while surfing he’ll often use it for wax or a muesli bar.
Swellnet received a suit to test, however with the editor dry-docked through injury he passed it onto gun spearfisher Pete Thompson to wear through late winter/spring on the NSW South Coast. The suit was a 4mm steamer made from limestone neoprene with attached hood, and of course it had the big unblinking eyes screened across the back of the wetsuit, and also near the cuff of each leg.
After a number of dives, Pete claimed it as the most comfortable dive suit he’d worn. Unlike normal dive suits, which are made from open cell neoprene, Shark Eyes is closed cell. Surfers are familiar with this as it has the same lining, however open cell dive suits require lube to allow the suit to slide on.
“It was great not having to mess around with lube,” said Pete. “Especially early in the morning when it was cold.” Pete used the pocket for a cray measure and claimed the 4mm suit was smack in the middle of the comfort zone for the season.
At a depth of ten metres, neoprene reduces to half its thickness so sporadic deep dives were fine. At any rate, spearfishers and snorkelers spend most of their time closer to the surface than that. It’s not a year-round suit, but then neither surfers nor divers wear the same suit year-round anyway.
“I wanted these to be no compromise suits,” says Shanan. “Ones that would work equally good for surfing or diving.”
When they hit the market, Shanan found the unpredictable quirks of COVID began to play into his favour. The first was the matter of enforced recreational time: Unable to work or travel, Australians suddenly had free time, and many chose to spend it in the ocean, for which they needed wetsuits. Secondly, and of more interest to Shanan considering his diving background, was how COVID reinforced the notion of self-sufficiency.
“I see lots of people diving for their dinner,” says Shanan. “Supporting a family that way.” You can surf and dive, for fun and for function, and, says Shanan, “You no longer need two suits.”
You may have noticed that, after 1,000 words, shark deterrence has barely been mentioned. That’s because the wetsuits mark a relaunch of sorts for Shark Eyes. “I didn’t want to just be the sticker guy,” explains Shanan, who’s become the go to person whenever the media needs a frontline shark story. “I’ve put my life story out there,” says Shanan, “but it’s draining reliving it over and over.”
So, while not disowning the shark eyes, the suits won’t be marketed as shark deterrent wetsuits. Consider the eyes a logo of sorts, albeit one with far greater significance than the usual symbol knocked up by a marketing company. “The eyes have their purpose,” says Shanan, “so too do all the other features on the suits.”
In early November, Pete Thompson dropped the suit back with Swellnet so it could get a surfing test run. First impressions? Limestone neoprene is supple. For a 4mm suit it’s incredibly easy to get in and out of, even with a gammy hand. The suit only got worn a few times, each session ending in dehydration. We’ll come back next year, when the water temperature again drops enough to warrant 4mm and provide a full review. Shark Eyes also have a 3mm steamer and 2.4mm skulk jacket.
For now though, Shanan’s big gamble appears to be paying off. Working for the man he won’t be, at least not anytime soon. The initial order of Shark Eyes wetsuits has almost sold out, with another on its way. This time with an expanded range and a bit of colourful promo too.