Home Freediving How the High-Tech Orca Lab Keeps Orca Wetsuits at the Top of...

How the High-Tech Orca Lab Keeps Orca Wetsuits at the Top of the Food Chain

Ander Lopez at the drawing board in the Orca Lab
Ander Lopez at the drawing board in the Orca Lab

In 1995 when Orca began making wetsuits, they focused entirely on competitive triathletes. These days, their suits protect surfers and open-water swimmers, and regularly ride along with top freedivers on record-breaking dives. The wetsuit market is saturated with all types of suits, from cheap off-the-rack options to high-tech purpose-built masterpieces, yet Orca is routinely the suit of choice for many high-performance athletes in several sports. So how did they find themselves here, at the top of the wetsuit food chain?

Orca Project Manager and all-around ocean enthusiast Ander Lopez has a few ideas and was generous enough to find some time in his busy schedule to share them with DeeperBlue.com. An engineer by trade, Ander says he was attracted to Orca by “the possibility to work in something related to my hobbies” and emphasizes that they look for ocean lovers when considering new hires. A genuine passion for the ocean is one of the main ingredients that make Orca suits so unique – the other is extensive, exhaustive research.

A swimmer in an Orca wetsuit stretching at the water's edge.
A passion for the ocean is a top requirement for new-hires at the Orca Lab

The folks at Orca prefer to go slow, to release just a few high-quality products rather than flooding the market with many sub-standard suits to have their hand in. Their philosophy is that if they build it the right way, the market will come. It can take around two years for a suit to make it from the idea phase through market analysis and material testing before it ever makes it to customers, with many trials, feedback, and adjustments in between.

One of the things that set Orca apart from many other manufacturers is their intensive research and testing process, much of which takes place at their unique facility, the Orca Lab. Equipped with a special tank that features high-tech sensors, researchers at the Orca Lab are able to test a variety of different types and thicknesses of neoprene, inner lining materials, and surface treatments for flexibility, durability, water absorption, and hydrodynamics.

The Orca Zen freediving wetsuit
The Orca Zen freediving wetsuit

For example, they might test elasticity by stretching a sample repeatedly until it breaks to determine its stress point or measure how many cycles of use a sample can withstand before breaking down, to understand how durable the material is. They compare surface treatments to see how well they allow the suits to move through the water and different linings to measure how compressive they are. As of this writing, Orca Lab has a database of over 200 combinations, with stats on their strengths and weaknesses and how they perform in various tests.

Different sports have different requirements for top-performing wetsuits. While all Orca suits use cutting-edge technology and Yamamoto rubber, each type is thoughtfully designed to help complement and boost the athletes’ abilities. And the patterns are just as important as the materials regarding performance and comfort.

For freediving suits, athletes need compression in some areas. In contrast, flexibility is the priority in others, so Orca suits incorporate different panels of neoprene in different parts of the suit to get the best of all worlds. Panels in the arms and legs are backed with Hydrolite compressive lining to help smooth out the diver’s extremities for optimum hydrodynamics and to channel more of their blood back into their trunk and head during their dives. Under the arms, between the legs, and along the shoulders, more flexible Infinity Skin panels help the diver’s body maintain a neutral posture and keep them from wasting too much energy having to fight the suit during finning and arm strokes. A batwing-style design at the shoulders keeps water out at the zipper. 

The YKK reverse zipper on the Orca Mantra wetsuit maximizes flexibility and the batwing-style shoulder keeps water out.
The YKK reverse zipper on the Orca Mantra wetsuit maximizes flexibility and the batwing-style shoulder keeps water out.

And it’s not just the neoprene–Orca designers incorporate other features in their suits to help athletes reach their maximum potential. A YKK reverse zipper distributes tension uniquely when closed, making for a shorter, better fit, which increases flexibility and improves the suit’s hydrodynamics. It’s critical to get the sizing right for the best fit, and of course, they need to develop different patterns for women’s suits versus men’s.

Once they’ve got a prototype they like, it’s back to the lab for more testing. To give us an idea of what that might look like, Ander describes a process where they place sensors on a tester’s skin underneath the suit to test if and how much water gets in. Lab tests can’t tell them everything, however. Objective data is essential, but their suits are designed to be worn by living, breathing (or breath-holding) humans, and the subjective feelings of the divers wearing them are crucial to perfecting the final product. So the next step is field testing.

To make sure their suits meet the market’s needs, Orca enlists top athletes’ help to take their prototypes out into the world for practical testing. Their feedback helps the lab techs fine-tune the details that will make it into the final product. The Zen and the Mantra, world-champion freediver William Trubridge is a natural choice for their freediving models.

World champion freediver and Orca brand ambassador William Trubridge rising from the depths in a Zen wetsuit
World champion freediver and Orca brand ambassador William Trubridge rising from the depths in a Zen wetsuit

“William can take our suits much deeper than any of us can,” Ander says of the “world’s deepest man” with a chuckle. He can also help determine if a suit’s lining is too compressive, which surface treatment is softer, or which combination of panels works best to help him dial in his best performance. And while it’s tough to scale up for mass production, in some exceptional cases, Orca can customize suits for particular athletes. Being a champion – or a brand ambassador – has its perks.

Orca’s commitment to quality and innovation means taking inspiration from various places. From concept cars – to get an idea of what aesthetics will be popular in the coming year – to the organic patterns of ocean creatures.  They also prioritize making time to listen to feedback from various sources. In addition to their colleagues in the lab and their pro-athlete testers, they like to hear from customers who use their suits and distributors who often have a broader perspective on the market’s needs. They partner with professional labs if their testing requires equipment they don’t have in the Orca Lab and even collaborate with universities.

Orca offers three options for women--the Zen for high-performance, the newly-released Mantra SwimSkin, and the Mantra full wetsuit (pictured) for durable use.
Orca offers three options for women–the Zen for high-performance, the newly-released Mantra SwimSkin, and the Mantra full wetsuit (pictured) for durable use.

Orca offers two wetsuits designed explicitly for freedivers – the Zen and the Mantra. Both are made from 2mm neoprene, but the Zen is designed for peak performance in competition, while the Mantra is geared more towards training and regular use with a focus on durability. Ander mentioned that some of the feedback they’ve been getting from their athletes is requesting a 5mm suit for diving in colder water, a direction with definite possibilities. In the meantime, though, he suggests we check out the freshly-launched third freediving option for women only – the Mantra SwimSkin. It’s a durable long-sleeved option mainly aimed at freedivers, but it can be used for various ocean sports.

Ander Lopez and the team at Orca Lab use cutting edge technology and extensive research to bring you technically advanced freediving wetsuits.
Ander Lopez and the team at Orca Lab use cutting edge technology and extensive research to bring you technically advanced freediving wetsuits.

On days when he’s not doing lab or fit testing, working with Orca athletes, or designing the next big thing, Ander and the other techs in the Orca Lab work on internal projects. Right now, Ander’s trying to develop strategies for what to do with wetsuits once they’re broken. Even the best suits don’t last forever, and finding a second life for them is preferable to filling up landfills with neoprene. 

At Orca Lab, Orca combines the curiosity and know-how of talented engineers and lab techs with the expert insight of top athletes to create specialized wetsuits for various ocean sports. Whether you’re looking for high-performance materials to help you reach your competitive personal best or durability to see you through everyday wear and endless training dives, Orca’s got you covered. 

 
 

The Orca Mantra is a wetsuit developed with high-quality materials that provide more durability without sacrificing performance. The high-elasticity materials provide a perfect fit and allow the wearer to enjoy freediving sessions without any restrictions.

The Orca Zen wetsuit combines the most efficient design with the most technical materials to minimize water resistance, making this the most hydrodynamic suit on the market. The fitted design and the use of high elasticity materials allow the wetsuit to fit to the body like a second skin, maximizing performance.

$399
$499

The Orca Mantra is a wetsuit developed with high-quality materials that provide more durability without sacrificing performance. The high-elasticity materials provide a perfect fit and allow the wearer to enjoy freediving sessions without any restrictions.

$399

The Orca Zen wetsuit combines the most efficient design with the most technical materials to minimize water resistance, making this the most hydrodynamic suit on the market. The fitted design and the use of high elasticity materials allow the wetsuit to fit to the body like a second skin, maximizing performance.

$499

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