How shark-y is it at your favorite surf spot today? That’s a forecast scientists are working to provide through technology and collaboration. In Sky Sharks, part of National Geographic‘s annual SharkFest programming, Dr. Chris Lowe and a team of researchers conduct the “Great White Stakeout” to observe and tag the sharks. The scientists also collect other data that can help determine why they prefer certain areas and how to predict their behavior.
Reports of great white sharks along the California coastline have increased in recent years. Dr. Lowe and his colleagues found that most are baby sharks. At less than six feet long, they may only be a few weeks old! Check out the exclusive clip of Sky Sharks below. Then read on for our chat with Dr. Lowe about his research at California State University, Long Beach’s Shark Lab and why he feels safe swimming in the same waters as great white sharks.
Nerdist: What will the shark forecast look like?
Dr. Chris Lowe: We are getting close to the point where we could have a weekly shark forecast. It will be beach by beach because what we find is sharks are choosing an aggregation site and then they’ll use that site for weeks, months, even years. And then for some reason that we don’t fully understand that site goes cold and they find a new site. That’s still a mystery that we’re trying to figure out. How do they choose a hotspot? How long will it remain hot? And I think we’re starting to get at that because we’re looking at what they eat now.
Our drone data was instrumental in telling us that surfers, stand-up paddle boarders, and swimmers that are outside the wave break are the individuals that are going to be in closest proximity to those sharks. If you don’t feel comfortable because our data are telling you there are sharks out there, then you can go somewhere where we’re not detecting sharks or we don’t predict sharks to be. And if you know that there’s sharks out there daily and they’re not bothering anybody, maybe you just keep going about your business.
Why are there more white sharks off the coast of California now than there used to be?
Based on the lack of adult white shark food for the last 100 years, the white shark population has probably been impacted in the Pacific for well over 100 years. So the problem is, we have no data from back then. So we have nothing to directly compare with, to say, “this is how much the population’s increased.”
When we first started to see what we thought was signs of population increase, I didn’t believe it. Because it doesn’t match with anything that we’ve seen with many other shark populations. In fact, most shark populations globally have been declining. I’ve done a lot of work in fisheries and it’s discouraging. But when I started to look at and examine how white sharks could come back, that was when it all started to make sense. White sharks were protected in California in 1994. Prior to that, if white sharks were caught in fisheries, they were landed and sold in fish markets. People probably ate them without even knowing they’re eating white shark.
The other part was recovery of white shark food. So just protecting white sharks from over-fishing isn’t enough to allow the population to come back as quickly as it has. They had to have adequate food resources as well. When you look at what adults eat, their favorite things to eat are seals. Federal protection wasn’t put in place until the ’70s, but we saw this remarkable recovery of many marine mammals in coastal California waters that was directly attributed to protection.
And now that we’re looking at what the babies eat, when they’re off our beaches, they love to eat stingrays. And they’re a super abundant source. In fact, stingrays injure more people in Southern California than any other marine organism.
How has drone technology helped your research and what comes next?
One of our biggest challenges is estimating the size of a shark using drone footage. The reason why that’s so hard is because we don’t always know how deep the shark is below the surface. Based on physics and refraction and all those things, objects are a different size under water than they appear from the surface. So as a result, we don’t know how deep the shark is and therefore we can grossly under or over estimate the size of the shark. By using other technologies like LIDAR, now you can bounce a laser off that shark and it will tell you how deep the shark is.
There appears to be some interesting social dynamics. And a lot of the drone footage that people gather out there, just recreationally flying, show a lot of those really interesting shark-shark interaction behaviors. We begin to realize that there’s a lot of playground rules going on at many of these sites where bigger sharks dominate and other sharks will get out of their way. So you can see a lot of behaviors that we just haven’t been able to study in sharks. And that’s one of the cool things that drones have given us.
We use the drones, we use underwater cameras for characterizing what they might be eating and identifying individuals. I’ve worked with some engineers to develop machine learning algorithms to identify white sharks based on their unique markings. And that technology, I think, is just going to explode because more and more photographers are out there shooting footage of these animals. And now we can use those machine learning algorithms to identify animals much faster and build these large libraries to track individuals.
What’s your favorite pop culture shark?
I grew up on Martha’s Vineyard, so I was there when they filmed Jaws. A lot of the people in that movie, I went to school with or knew growing up. So for me, watching Jaws is like watching a home movie, literally. That had an interesting influence on me and my career choice. I always swore I would never study white sharks as I was developing my career because I thought, “They’re totally overrated. They get way more credit than they deserve.” And it wasn’t until I saw my first baby white shark that I thought, “Okay, maybe I was wrong.” They’re actually really cute.
Check out both episodes of Sky Sharks. Episode two covers the superpowers of certain sharks. You can learn about things like the bite force of a tiger shark and the speed of a mako shark. SharkFest 2022 programming is happening all summer on National Geographic and Disney+.
Melissa is Nerdist’s science & technology staff writer. She is more likely to be bitten by soccer player Luis Suarez than any shark on Earth. Melissa also moderates “science of” panels at conventions and co-hosts Star Warsologies, a podcast about science and Star Wars. Follow her on Twitter @melissatruth.