Once rare off southern California beaches, great white sharks are starting to appear more often. The new arrivals are mostly juvenile sharks, which prefer warm waters closer to shore. This means that many beach goers who now spot sharks have never seen predators before.
“When those little fins started showing up, everyone was scrambling to figure out what was going on,” said Douglas J. McCauley, professor of marine science and director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative at the University of California at Santa Barbara. .
A new project using artificial intelligence called SharkEye can help keep track of these dreaded fish. The technology is being developed by Dr. McCauley’s lab (who is working with AI researchers from Salesforce, the company run by his lab sponsor, Marc Benioff) and computer scientists at San Diego State University to monitor further the seafront while discovering the migrations of sharks.
SharkEye has been tested over the past two summers at Padaro Beach in Santa Barbara County, a popular area for surf camps that also happens to be a nursery for young white sharks. Viewing sharks there and elsewhere, when it does, is usually done by following tagged animals online or having someone stand on a paddleboard in the water to keep an eye out. .
With SharkEye, a pilot launches a drone that travels along a preprogrammed path in the sky, followed by a second winding route to scan the water below. The drone stays at around 120 feet, allowing sweeps to quickly cover much of the ocean. This height is also high enough not to disturb marine life.
The pilot monitors a real-time video feed, noting sharks, then texting the 36 people who signed up for alerts – a group that includes lifeguards, surf camp instructors and beach owners.
Dr McCauley said the lab is working on different types of alerts so people have information before they venture into the water. These can come from social media or even a “shark report” modeled on surf reports.
Images from the drone are also fed into a computer model the team trained to recognize great white sharks. By combining this with other data, such as information on ocean temperature and other migrations of marine life, the researchers hope to use the power of artificial intelligence to develop predictions of when and where where sharks will show up, which could lead to ways to share the ocean as safely as possible.
Researchers are turning to AI to learn more about certain marine animals that, because they live under vast oceans, have been more difficult to study than most land creatures.
Using hydrophones and AI, Google has created tools to automatically detect humpback whales and orcas by their sounds. Flukebook is a project that tracks dolphins and whales individually using artificial intelligence to identify them by unique features on their tails and fins, much like facial recognition technology. Even without AI, drones have allowed groups like Pelagios Kakunjá, a Mexican conservation organization, to study sharks more closely.
The increase in great white sharks off California is in part the result of climate change, which is pushing animals, especially juveniles, north of their usual haunts further south along the California coast to the Baja California. Successful conservation efforts like the Marine Mammal Protection Act have helped some of sharks’ favorite foods – seals and sea lions – rebound. And the ban on gillnets near the coast has reduced the number of sharks accidentally caught by commercial fishermen.
Even with the growing shark population, shark attacks are rare off the west coast, with just 118, including six deaths, since 2000, according to the nonprofit Shark Research Committee.
One of those attacks took place at Padaro Beach over the summer, when the SharkEye team was not flying a drone due to the coronavirus shutdown. A shark allegedly bit a woman swimming offshore, even though her injuries were minor. And eight days later, a shark killed a surfer hours north in Santa Cruz – the first deadly shark attack in California since 2012.
There is no evidence that the rate of shark attacks is increasing even as more people use the beach, according to Chris Lowe, professor of marine biology and director of the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach. . The chances of being bitten are still extremely low, but giving people a better overview of the number of sharks in the area can help beach goers make informed decisions about what to risk.
“The reality is that sharks won’t change their behavior,” Dr Lowe said. “This data is more valuable in changing people’s behavior.”
Chris Keet, the owner of Surf Happens, a local surf shop that offers summer camps and private lessons on Padaro Beach, is already changing his business based on data from SharkEye. After SharkEye recorded nine sightings in one day in July, Mr Keet decided to quash a two-decade-old summer tradition in which campers dive for sand dollars and swim to a buoy.
“Even though sharks aren’t aggressive,” Mr. Keet said, “you only need one.”
Because the SharkEye drone is not in use while camp is in session, Mr. Keet still relies on people on paddleboards as lookouts, including himself. After growing up nearby and never seeing a shark, it now almost always sees a shadow or a water-cutting fin when on duty.
“They are beautiful,” he says. “But it’s scary.”