California Scientists Use Technology to Track Sharks

Marine biologists at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego and at California State University Long Beach are using new technology, including GPS devices and drones, to “tag” sharks and their movements

Scientists in California are making great advances in how they track sharks off the coast, using technology to tag the creatures to record their movements in the ocean.

On Tuesday morning, scientists from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego were doing just that, tagging sharks ahead of the summer season.

"This is the time of year they're starting to show up in La Jolla," said Dr. Andy Nosal, a marine biologist with Scripps, whose team tagged a sevengill and soupfin shark on Tuesday.

The tags allow scientists to track a shark’s movement even in deeper water.

Nosal said the tools and tracking devices being used by scientists to do this type of work are better than ever.

“The technology is improving – especially, the battery life is improving,” he said. “Sharks are important predators,” Nosal added. “They play an important role in the ecosystem and we need to know where they are, what they’re doing and when they’re doing it.”

At California State University Long Beach (CSULB), Dr. Chris Lowe is part of a team tracking great white sharks off Southern California.

GPS trackers are just the start.

He said newer technology is changing the game on how they track sharks and what information they can gather. Lowe’s team is now using underwater robots to track and record video of great whites, as well as a device that can attach onto a shark to record where they move, how they move, and record video from a shark’s point of view.

The team also recently began using drones. Drone video taken by lifeguards off Seal Beach recently captured clear video of two juvenile great white sharks.

“We’re developing programmable drones with software that will allow us to estimate the size of the shark and maybe even identify the species based on its pattern or outline,” Lowe told NBC 7.

For scientists following sharks, sights like great whites in action are becoming more common.

“The last three years, because of El Nino, we didn’t have a winter and one of the things we noticed is that none of the sharks we tagged in the summer ever migrated,” he explained. “They never left. They stayed.”

Over Memorial Day Weekend, a swimmer was attacked by a shark in Newport Beach, California.

The victim, Maria Korcsmaros, 52, was training for a half-Iron Man competition off Corona Del Mar State Beach when she was attacked. The shark bite, doctors said, extended from her shoulder to her pelvic area. She is expected to survive.

Following this shark attack, Lowe cautions those who believe tracking tools may be used to make beaches safer for swimmers and surfers.

“What happens is people think it’s only dangerous to go in the water when a shark has been detected, but we can’t tag every shark out there,” said Lowe. “So I think we have to be careful. These things are science tools right now that are helping us unlock the mysteries about behavior of sharks, but I don’t think we’re at the point yet where we can use it to actually keep the public safe.”

Nosal said he’s used to fielding a lot of questions about the mysterious sea creatures.

“Part of people’s fascination with sharks is it’s a fascination with the unknown,” he said.

But thanks to technology, the unknown is getting much more familiar.

“We should be excited to see lots of sharks because they wouldn't be there if the ecosystem wasn't healthy," Nosal added.

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