Katharine the white shark crashes research site's servers

Katharine was tagged off Cape Cod and is now likely headed to Texas, and she might be pregnant

Like the real star of the movie Jaws, another white shark has taken on celebrity status along with dozens of others tagged with electronic tracking devices, so much so that visitors to a research site are crashing its servers.

The celebrity's name is Katharine, a 14-foot, 2,300-pound white shark (Latin name: carcharodon carcharias) that was tagged off Cape Cod last August. She was named by researchers from OCEARCH after Katharine Lee Bates, a Cape Cod native and writer of the patriotic song "America the Beautiful."

OCEARCH is a nonprofit, global shark-tracking project that uses four 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 granular detail.

Though Katharine typically cruises up and down the Eastern Seaboard, she is currently about 150 miles off the western coast of Florida. Experts from OCEARCH tracking her through the Gulf of Mexico believe that in another week she may be heading past the Mississippi River for the Texas coastline.

OCEARCH
Katharine being tagged off Cape Cod last August (Photo: OCEARCH).

OCEARCH founder and expedition leader Chris Fischer said Katharine has become particularly popular among about 50 sharks currently being tracked because she often swims close to shore.

"I think what makes her special is she swam right down the east coast of Florida, right through Miami, right around Key West and then showed us for the first time in history how the white shark gets up into the Gulf of Mexico," Fischer said in an interview with Computerworld. "When she swims through these populated areas ... more and more people feel included and join in the movement."

The Katharine saga

Up to 100,000 people simultaneously have been visiting OCEARCH's website in recent weeks, and its Facebook page has received as many as 5 million visits a week, but it's Katharine that has been at the center of an ongoing soap opera of sorts.

You see, Katharine may be pregnant.

Male white sharks and non-pregnant females typically return to breeding grounds every year, while pregnant females return every two years because of an 18-month gestation period.

Cape Cod is a white shark breeding ground, and typically this time of year the fish begin voyaging back to that area, but not Katharine -- at least not yet.

"Is she going to reveal in the next 60 days if she's pregnant?" Fischer asked. "Will she stay away from the Cape which would indicate she is?"

Since OCEARCH's founding in 2007, more than 200 sharks have been tagged, but the tags' batteries only last three to five years.

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," said Nick Whitney, a marine biologist with the Mote Marine Laboratories in Sarasota, Fla. "Second by second, we can pick up every tail beat and change in posture."

OCEARCH
Katharine headed toward New Orleans (Image: OCEARCH).

In addition to in-depth data, what sets OCEARCH apart from previous 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, and, in some cases, see a detailed trail over the course of a year or more.

OCEARCH
Katharine's track over the past month or so (Image: OCEARCH).

Next up, shark attacks off Brazil

OCEARCH is preparing for its next shark-tagging expedition off the shores of Brazil, where there have been an extraordinary number of attacks.

Prior to 1992, there were virtually no attacks off Brazil. Since then, there have been 59 shark attacks -- 24 of them fatal -- along a 12-mile stretch of coastline. Most of the attacks have been from tiger and bull sharks, Fischer said.

"It has continued. They don't really have a handle on what's going on down there. It may have to do with work that's been done on the coastline recently," Fischer said. "They're just starting to try to put some science behind it, and we're hoping we can go there and radically accelerate that for them."

Fischer founded OCEARCH in order to radically change the way research is performed on sharks. He said he wanted to make it a "global movement" that was inclusive of the general public in a way that typical academic research rarely is.

Instead of "a bunch of Ph.Ds" having exclusive access to ongoing research, that when complete is filed away in mostly inaccessible archives, Fischer said he wanted to open up real-time research to everyone.

Part of the reason for open access is also to educate people about how harmless most sharks are, even though they're often around beaches, and to bring to light the slaughter of sharks worldwide.

Every day, 250,000 sharks are killed to make shark-fin soup, Fischer said.

So the fact that servers are crashing is a good sign, according to Fischer. "That's great for sharks. We have to turn this research project into a global movement, and that's going to take all of us," he said.

Fischer, however, is hoping to gain a technology partner to help the nonprofit project. He's asking for help from any IT company that may be able to offer support to help keep OCEARCH's infrastructure running smoothly.

Lucas Mearian covers consumer data storage, consumerization of IT, mobile device management, renewable energy, telematics/car tech and entertainment tech for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed . His e-mail address is lmearian@computerworld.com.

See more by Lucas Mearian on Computerworld.com.

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