Last weekend I took a trip down to Cape Cod with my girlfriend and stayed at her family’s house in Eastham. One thing that I love about Eastham are its beaches. Her house is within a handful of miles of the beaches on Cape Cod Bay and the Cape Cod National Seashore as well. For those familiar with the Cape, they know that this is the area where the ever-expanding White shark population has been under focus.
I have learned that there are pushes to involve technology in tracking of sharks, educating the average beachgoer and preventing attacks in the waters of Cape Cod. It is a difficult task to bring technology in to help solve a problem that involves wild animals without disrupting their natural habitat. However, it is necessary as there have been an increase in human interactions with sharks in the Cape Cod waters over the past decade. There have been seven shark attacks, including one fatality, in Massachusetts waters since 2012. Finding ways to coexist with sharks and avoid attacks has become a public health issue. Below are some of the current and proposed ways technology can be used to address the problem:
Tagging and Tracking
A project to study the activity and movement of sharks around Cape Cod was launched in 2009 by Greg Skomal, a marine biologist of the of Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. His research was originally focused on their migration patterns, where they hang out on the Cape and how long they stay in the area. It has since progressed to study how they hunt for prey and how many of the sharks are actually in the Cape’s waters. To track all of this, Skomal and his team use geolocation tags that track the movement of the sharks. They go out twice a week in their boat and, with the help of a spotter plane, find White sharks that they can place the tags on. The tags are small (about the size of two AA batteries laid end to end) and do not harm the shark. Over 200 individual sharks have been tagged around the Cape and the team continues to tag and track more sharks each year.
Real-time Data and Alerts
Placing the trackers on the sharks is only the first step in obtaining valuable data. The tags have to ping their location off of a receiver to show their current location as they do not function like a GPS system that constantly reports their position. Skomal has placed over 100 Innovasea buoys around the shores of Massachusetts to connect to the shark’s trackers and provide real-time data on their location. When a shark swims within close proximity of the buoys, it will register the shark in its data and then report it immediately to the Sharktivity app.
The Sharktivity app provides a detailed map view of all shark pings from buoys and human sightings along the coast of Massachusetts. Users can zoom into specific areas to view whether there have been shark pings or sightings at their beach within the past year, month, week or day. This allows beachgoers to make an educated decision whether they feel the water there is safe to swim in. More importantly, the app also delivers immediate push notifications of when a shark pings a buoy or is spotted by someone. This gives lifeguards and people at the beach notice to get out of the water if one is nearby.
Phones on the Beach
The major drawback of the Sharktivity app is that it relies on cellular service, which is limited on the Cape Cod National Seashore. People at the beach are not able to get the notifications of sharks being along the coast until they actually leave the beach. This was an issue in two recent shark attacks where beachgoers had to run back to the parking lot in order to place calls to 911 for help. Phone companies lack incentive to build towers for the relatively small year-round population on the Cape, so it is up to the towns to be creative in providing avenues for access to emergency services. Many municipalities along the shore have installed call boxes that have a direct line to 911. In the case of an emergency, this can reduce the time for assistance and potentially save lives.
Balloons and Drones
Another system that is under consideration to monitor for sharks uses large balloons that fly above the beaches. Alametry is a company based out of Miami that has designed balloons containing high-definition cameras that can fly above areas and conduct surveillance. The camera’s batteries can last for up to five hours and the lenses can view in clear detail an area covering about one mile long. The balloons have been tested on the Cape, but approval and rollout of this application has not happened yet. One of the major limitations of the balloons are that their cameras are only good at identifying objects in water depth of six feet or less. This same drawback applies to drones, which have been studied in Australia as possible preventative technologies. The Woods Hole Group has funded studies that have explored these alternatives and found that the results have been inconclusive in their effectiveness.
For the prevention of shark attacks, it seems like there is no silver bullet solution that can be applied. The reality is that it will take many of these options to work together to educate the public, lessen the odds of an attack and improve the outcomes if there is an attack. On a personal level, I am essentially afraid of my own shadow in the water. However, I have not let that stop me from going in and having fun. I think of it more of a calculated risk. If more preventive measures like the balloons and drones are deployed, I would feel more comfortable and safe and I would bet that most other people would as well.