Eyes In The Skies: String Of Camera Balloons Could Spot Sharks

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Sharks

Nauset Beach, viewed from 200 feet above the dunes.  COURTESY ALTAMETRY

CHATHAM — It's a proposal that is raising a number of questions and a few eyebrows, but a Florida-based firm is proposing a 40-mile-long network of 15 balloon-mounted cameras to watch for sharks near bathing beaches between Provincetown and Chatham. 

The concept floated by officials at Altametry involves deploying balloons on beach days at Harding's Beach in Chatham, two at Lighthouse Beach, one at the northern end of North Beach Island, two at Nauset Beach, and nine more northward along the shoreline, ending at Long Point in Provincetown.

“The public swimming areas would be completely covered, but this project is not just about beach safety, it is also about shark behavioral science,” Altametry spokesman Tom Davis said. “The hope is that we can work with the towns and position the balloons in a pattern where they visually overlap each other.”

In early August, an Altametry crew was on the Lower Cape testing the equipment, part of a $10,000 trial project funded by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. The company's CEO, John Ciampa, called the trial a success. The balloons held their positions in gusty breezes of more than 15 mph, and the stabilized cameras beamed high-resolution real-time images to operators on the ground. While there were no sharks to be seen at the time, the cameras were able to easily show seals, which are even smaller.

In a subsequent test, balloons were deployed from a boat, and the cameras were able to track and monitor two white sharks from an altitude of 300 feet. In a news release, Davis said the 15-balloon network is practical “not only for the new data provided to scientists, but for the peace of mind of citizens.”

Cynthia Wigren of the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy said that while state shark biologist Greg Skomal has expressed interest in using the balloons for research, it remains to be seen whether beach managers or public safety officials will bite on the proposal.

“It will be up to individual towns to decide whether or not they want to deploy balloon-mounted cameras to assist with spotting,” she said. Wigren said the balloon system will be a topic of discussion at the fall meeting of the regional White Shark Working Group.

White shark safety is once again in the news. On Monday, a seal was devoured by a white shark off Nauset Beach within view of many beachgoers. On a single day late last month, there were 11 shark sightings off east-facing beaches, with two tagged sharks recorded by an acoustic receiver buoy off Monomoy Island. The day before, Aug. 23, a 69-year-old Chatham man was paddleboarding off Marconi Beach in Wellfleet when his board was bitten by a white shark. He was not hurt.

There are no cost estimates yet for a network of shark-detecting balloons. Each individual balloon costs around $7,000, but the real expense would be the staffing required to deploy, maintain and monitor each unit.

“Site operators would change batteries twice a day and secure the inflated balloon, at night, in a provided trailer, which would also serve as a work station, containing controls and transmission electronics,” an Altametry news release reads. “The total annual cost would be less than the cost of a single helicopter currently in use by state and local government.”

Airplanes are currently used to spot white sharks on days when researchers are conducting tagging trips by boat, rather than for the purpose of protecting bathing beaches.

There are opportunities for communities to share the cost of a monitoring network, possibly using shared balloon technicians or a centralized monitoring station where a technician could monitor beaches in several towns simultaneously. Since sharks often travel up and down the outer beach, such a system could provide more advance notice when a white shark is approaching, Altametry officials say.

Among the other questions raised by the proposal is how well the cameras would detect white sharks in waters thick with mung, a dark-colored seaweed that clouds visibility. Davis said the equipment can detect items as deep as 20 feet against a sandy bottom, and between six to 10 feet deep against darker, mucky water.

Even if the system proves to be ideal for detecting sharks in all conditions, it remains to be seen whether taxpayers would have the appetite to spend money on balloon-mounted cameras. Chatham Selectmen Chairman Cory Metters said the idea can't be dismissed.

“I think it's a conversation that we're fast approaching to have,” he said. “We have to understand the cost associated with it, the risk factors, and what level, as a town, our responsibility extends to.”

Several years ago, selectmen debated whether to install lifeguard stands at Lighthouse Beach. Opponents of the idea argued that doing so would sanction the area as a bathing beach, despite its strong currents and other risks to swimmers. Metters said that the town would need to know whether a system designed to detect sharks might actually increase the town's legal exposure.

“That would be a serious question to ask,” he said.

If such a system were ever put in place, it would be important to make certain that the balloons didn't give swimmers and boaters a false sense of security, Metters added. Wigren agreed.

“Public education would need to be coupled with any new resource implemented,” she said.

Altametry officials say the system could provide genuine security, not false security.

“As the population of white sharks continues to rise in the area, this technology will be a key component to help keep swimmers and sharks safe by providing beachgoers with an early warning system,” Davis said. “I know I would be more relaxed in the water knowing there is nothing showing for several miles, and that I will have more than enough time should some danger arise.”