Jack O’Neill, surf legend who pioneered the wetsuit, dies at 94

Surfing world icon and wetsuit pioneer Jack O’Neill died aged 94 at his California home Saturday surrounded by his family.

O’Neill, who helped invent the wetsuit, allowing surfers to ride the waves in cold water, was a legend of the surfing world and went on to champion marine environmental causes later in life.

The 94-year-old created one of the best-known surf brands on the planet after opening his first surf shop in San Francisco way back in 1959.

He began wearing his trademark eye patch after losing an eye in a surfing accident while riding a wave in the 1970s.

O’Neill later moved his family south to Santa Cruz, California, where he opened his second shop, and by the 1980s had become the world’s biggest wetsuit designer and manufacturer, though initially his friends didn’t have much faith in his groundbreaking invention.

“All my friends said, ‘O’Neill, you will sell to five friends on the beach and then you will be out of business,’” he remarked, according to his family.

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Wanting to surf for longer in the cold waters off the California coast, O’Neill began experimenting with a variety of materials, eventually inventing the first neoprene wetsuit, still worn by surfers to this day.

Later in life, he began to focus on marine environmental causes, setting up the O’Neill Sea Odyssey in 1996, something he considered his proudest achievement.

The program has so far allowed nearly 100,000 children to travel on his personal catamaran to the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, in order to learn about marine conservation.

“The ocean is alive and we’ve got to take care of it,” the legendary surfer is quoted as saying. “There is no doubt in my mind that the O’Neill Sea Odyssey is the best thing I’ve ever done.”

Tributes have been pouring in on social media from surf groups and enthusiasts the world over.