Forget Shark Week: Researchers tag n' track great whites

Using four different kinds of tracking technology, OCEARCH finds sharks are often closer to shore than you think

Meet Mary Lee, a great white shark that's the same weight and nearly the same length as a Buick. And, by the way, you may have been swimming within a few feet of her this past year and not known it.

Since last September, when she received an array of radio, acoustic and satellite tags, Mary Lee has travelled from Massachusetts to Florida, often hugging the coastline so closely that scientists tracking her called beach authorities in Florida to warn them about her. The 16-foot, 3,456-pound shark also headed into open ocean, taking a February vacation off the beaches of Bermuda.

"She was undoubtedly not the only one there. Sharks have probably been doing it for millions of years," said Nick Whitney, a marine biologist with the Mote Marine Laboratories in Sarasota, Fla. "We're learning things that 10 years ago we would have never dreamed we could have learned about these species."

Mary Lee
Mary Lee, a 16-foot 3,456-pound great white shark, traversed the East Coast over the past year, at times hugging the shoreline so close as to prompt a warning call from researchers. (Image: OCEARCH).

Whitney, who spoke this week from a research vessel off of Cape Cod, Mass., is part of a team that runs OCEARCH, a non-profit, global shark tracking project that uses four different tagging technologies to create a three-dimensional image of a shark's activities. OCEARCH is hoping to develop successful conservation and management strategies by studying shark habits in more granular detail.

While traditional research has focused on small-scale movements, the data being gathered by OCEARCH offers surprising new information about where sharks go and what they do. That's where the tracking technology is crucial.

A dorsal fin tag attached by OCEARCH uses a satellite to track a shark's position each time it breaks the surface. Other tags include an RFID implant whose ping is picked up whenever the shark passes a special, underwater buoy; an accelerometer, similar to the technology used in an iPhone or Nintendo Wii, that detects up or down movement; and a Pop-off Satellite Archive Tag (PSAT), which acts as a general archive, recording average water depth, temperature and light levels.

"On average, we're collecting 100 data points every second -- 8.5 million data points per day. It's just phenomenal," Whitney said. "Second by second, we can pick up every tail beat and change in posture."

One of the surprises the tracking data revealed is that white sharks don't always stick to cold water, as previously thought. Some even venture into the Gulf of Mexico during the summer.

The OCEARCH team tags a great white shark off of Cape Cod, Mass.

Open-source research

In addition to in-depth data, what sets OCEARCH apart from past shark-tracking projects is that anyone -- from a child in grade school to a television arm-chair warrior -- can see the tracking data at the same time as researchers on the OCEARCH web site.

Each shark's location is represented by an icon on a Google Maps-based TruEarth Viewer. By clicking on the icon, a user can get detailed information such as the species, gender, size, weight, length, as well as where and when the shark was tagged. A user also gets images of the shark as it was being tagged.

By drilling down further, and clicking on the "Where Have I Been" icon, a user can also see a track of where the shark has been since being tagged, in some cases see a detailed trail over the course of a year or more.

OCEARCH expedition leader Chris Fischer calls the methodology "open source" research, since all scientists see the data at the same time; nothing's proprietary. Within a week, OCEARCH also plans to launch a "digital hub" shark tracker platform with a real-time social media interface that allows researchers to post FAQs and videos to the most popular social networks: Facebook, YouTube, Instagram or Twitter, according to OCEARCH spokesman Chris Berger.

OCEARCH will also be launching a Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Education-based curriculum for K-12 students. "We currently have 30 lesson plans for sixth through eighth graders, and will have more for K-12 -- eventually, even pre-K," Berger said.

Currently, OCEARCH is tracking 47 sharks, some of them bull and mako but mostly great whites off the U.S. East Coast and in the waters off South Africa.

Many of the sharks are given endearing names, such as Princess Fi, Genie, Oprah, and Sabrina. Others have handles more befitting ships, such as Poseidon, Redemption, Perseverance and Courage.

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