Tracking Sharks In Real Time Possible With High-tech Buoy

By: Kat Szmit

Topics: Sharks

Volunteers from the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, Dr. Greg Skomal, and Ph.D Candidate Megan Winton attach acoustic transmitters to shark buoys.  COURTESY PHOTO

CHATHAM – In 2014 a population study began aimed at getting a better sense of just how many white sharks are in the waters off Cape Cod. Since then more than 320 individual white sharks have been identified.

Proving a big help to renowned shark researcher Dr. Greg Skomal and the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy have been vibrant yellow buoys affixed with acoustic receivers. Not only has the time come for the final season of the study, but also the redeployment of the buoys, which will hopefully include one that allows shark tracking in real time.

“The buoys themselves actually get a lot of attention because they're big and yellow,” said Cynthia Wigren, executive director of the AWSC, who explained that each has a receiver attached that helps detect tagged sharks swimming by. The buoys have been deployed across the Cape and South Shore, as well as off the coast of Maine and New Hampshire.

Throughout the season when sharks are more likely to frequent the Cape, typically late June through October, Skomal and his research crew, supported by the Conservancy, not only scan the water for sharks, but also pay regular visits to the tracking buoys in order to download their data.

“The majority of the receivers require manual downloads of their information,” said Wigren. “We actually pull the receiver onto the boat, use a laptop with Bluetooth connection and download all data stored on the receiver.”

That data includes a shark's tag number and the date and time he or she passed by said buoy. The information is also accessible to shark fans armed with the Sharktivity app on their smartphone or tablet, allowing them to see where a favorite finned creature was recently sighted.

While receiving such data has been immensely helpful throughout the five-year population study, giving scientists a window into the world of the local movement patterns of white sharks, where they might live, and what their favorite places to visit are, what researchers are looking forward to is the deployment of a real-time acoustic buoy.

The first was deployed last summer off Monomoy Island, where a higher number of sharks are known to be on a regular basis. Unfortunately a September storm knocked the receiver offline and given the lateness of the season, it was not redeployed. The current plan is to redeploy the real-time buoy within the next few weeks.

“We're optimistic we will have a successful deployment this season,” said Wigren, who noted that AWSC has been working on the project with Avwatch, a company based in Plymouth. “They do a lot of work with the military and have been helping with this project for the last few years.”

So what makes the real-time buoy so valuable?

“Ideally, if the buoy is working properly, that will send information immediately in real time,” Wigren said. “If a shark swims by that receiver, it will transmit that information through a cellular transmission in real time.”

Though not scientifically significant since data collected by all the buoys is valuable, what the real-time buoy allows is the opportunity to increase public safety.

“It's more important on the public safety side, raising awareness about where these sharks are,” Wigren said. “It will certainly be helpful in getting people information right away if there is a shark that is tagged off the coast.”

The problem is that not every shark swimming off the coast has been tagged, which means there are concerns that people will make assumptions that since there haven't been any real time “pings,” it must be safe to venture into the water.

“People are aware that there is no guarantee,” said Wigren. “But we can ultimately tie this to our Sharkivity app.”

That's why the push is on for the AWSC to raise funds once again to ensure that Skomal will be able to traverse the waters along the Cape, locating new sharks to tag thanks to the assistance of spotter pilot Wayne Davis.

“The big cost for us is the spotter pilot who helps find the sharks, and also having the vessel out on the water two days of the week,” Wigren said. “It's an exciting time for people to contribute because it can put us over that finish line and let us know what the results will be when Greg Skomal wraps it up.”

The other puzzle piece helped by donations is the cost of the equipment, including the buoys. Wigren said the real-time buoy is more costly than those that gather data for late download.

“It's great in that it gives you information right away, but it costs a significant amount more than the other receivers,” she said. “Last year was the first time we were successfully able to test that technology [and] ultimately we would want to have a discussion with towns to be able to have this tech up and running for a season.”

Wigren said the current fundraiser is to support the final year of the population study, and that all donations made between now and June 15 will be matched, up to $50,000. Though the population study is in its final season, Wigren emphasized that shark research on Cape Cod will continue.

“This is not the end of shark research. This specifically was a five-year study,” she said, adding that the identification of more than 320 white sharks since the study's start is impressive. “Prepping for that ahead of time, I don't know that anyone would have thought the number would have been that high.”

To make a donation to benefit the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and its population study visit http://www.atlanticwhiteshark.org/donate-1/.