Tech takes a bite out of sharks

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.

Skomal placing a tag on a shark on the Cape Cod National Seashore

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.

Map view from Sharktivity

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.

9 comments

  1. Great post. What I think is interesting when it comes to preventing shark attacks is that as you present there is no one silver bullet solution. What I think could be interesting would be if there were a way to safely tag portions of the population seasonally to determine where some of the schools were located. Based on this you could create an app centered around this type of data that would allow provide you with a basic idea as to which areas to avoid or approach at your own risk. It will also be interesting whether underwater drones will ever be employed to provide data as well.

  2. We have a place in Brewster, and are at the Eastham beaches alot in the summer. It’s so cool to see them out there tagging sharks. Very helpful and interesting tech. Nice post!

  3. olivia_levy8 · ·

    Great blog! I was immediately drawn to this as I am from Long Island and have also spent 5 months abroad in Australia, two places that sharks are a real concern. I’ve seen the craziness on Bondi when the shark sirens go off and thousands of people are running out of the water, this technology could definitely be beneficial. I think the tagging and buoy idea is brilliant, just seems a matter of scale to currently be holding them back. Interesting topic that I have not really thought about in terms of applying technology and would am inclined to learn more about this!

  4. conoreiremba · ·

    Great post Michael and yet another “why didn’t I think of that before” moment that I’ve been having a lot of this semester. I went to the Cape last summer and having grown up in Ireland it was the first time I had seen a “beware of shark” sign on a beach that wasn’t a joke. Your blog made me do some digging of my own. In County Kerry, one of the great tourist attractions over the last 40 years has been a dolphin named Fungie (I’m not kidding…https://www.cnn.com/travel/article/fungie-dolphin-ireland-intl-scli/index.html). But that dolphin went missing without a trace last year, so after reading this I was wondering why they didn’t put a tracking device on him. After a quick search, I found an answer (on Reddit) which echoes your point about disrupting their natural habitat, and tagging Fungie would have seen as taking his freedom.
    But then gain Fungie did not pose the same threat as sharks do and I think that any technology that can save even one life is fantastic, not to mention allowing beachgoers to be comfortable taking those calculated risks you mention. Thanks for sharing.

  5. sayoyamusa · ·

    Very Interesting post! I’ve never thought of wild animals as the object of technology applications, but all these ideas make sense and can be beneficial for both humans and sharks. I also like your saying “calculated risk,” which is a cool concept that can be applied to manage the today’s uncertain business situations. Shark attacks are not so relevant to me because there are few in Japan, but I believe these technologies can be utilized to other wild animal incidents such as bear attacks. In fact, I’ve found the news of “a robotic wolf” implemented to scare bears off (which looks not so sophisticated as the technologies in your blog though.)
    Japanese install robot monster wolf to avoid bear attacks: https://www.republicworld.com/technology-news/gadgets/bear-attacks-on-the-rise-people-of-japan-deploy-robotic-monster-wolves-to-scare-them-off.html

  6. therealerindee · ·

    Really cool to see all of the ways tech is being used to limit human-shark interactions. I definitely like your take of seeing entering the ocean as a “calculated risk.” I think with all of these tech applications, we are more able to review information (where the sharks seem to be at the moment) and allow that to help inform our decision of if we go in the water today or not. Unfortunately, I think a lot of shark attacks happen because people aren’t being hyperaware of their surroundings when in the water, so it would seem that some of the people getting hurt probably aren’t those constantly checking the Sharktivity app. I could see a cool thing to come out of this being a flag similar to flags used for current warnings that would be placed out on the beach if the tech is showing that there is a lot of shark activity in the area.

  7. Scott Siegler · ·

    This is really cool! I appreciate you going in-depth on a topic that definitely doesn’t get much play in the world of tech journalism, but is in the process of making important improvements to the safety of beachgoers. It will be interesting to see how this setup continues to evolve and provide greater accuracy, and then how this technology can be applied in other creative ways to solve completely different problems down the road as well.

  8. williammooremba · ·

    Really interesting post. I did a little research and found that interesting unprovoked shark attacks were down in 2020. Based on Florida Museum of Natural History’s International Shark Attack File (ISAF) 2020 there were 57 confirmed unprovoked cases which was lower than the five-year (2015-2019) average of 80. Their yearly summary mentions widespread quarantines, closed beaches, and minimized vacation travel having an impact. I am wondering if as people go back to vacationing their will end up being a spike either this summer or next summer. It certainly could increase the need for the various technology applications you mentioned in your post.
    Link to the ISAF’s yearly worldwide summary: https://www.floridamuseum.ufl.edu/shark-attacks/yearly-worldwide-summary/

  9. Andrae Allen · ·

    The last time I was at the beach at the Cape, I noticed some Seals in the water. That was the first time I saw a real-life Seal that was not working at the New England Aquarium. Interestingly it never occurred to me that Sharks could be nearby, but I should not be surprised given that Seals are on the menu for large Sharks. It reminds me of the idiom, “Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.” Thanks to your post, I’m relieved to know that there are organizations that exist to monitor the welfare of the marine life in and around the Cape while simultaneously keeping the public aware of their movements. I do wonder what the public perception would be if the movie Jaws never existed???

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