Some sharks have become social media stars

OCEARCH's tagged sharks were nowhere near surf competition

Lydia the great white shark OCEARCH

When news of a shark attack on professional surfer Mick Fanning reached Costa Rica and 9-year-old Ella Strickland Sunday, she grabbed her mother's smartphone to see if the great white was one of the sharks she knows.

Happily for Ella, the shark that attacked Fanning during the J-Bay Open surfing competition wasn't Lydia, her family's favorite and one of many Ella has been tracking via OCEARCH's Shark Tracker.

Lydia, a 14-foot, one-ton great white, is kicking it in The Bahamas right now. Twitter, however, has lit up with activity about Lydia and other sharks on OCEARCH's mobile app.

"She wanted to know if the man was OK and if the shark was OK," said Rob Strickland, Ella's father.

OCEARCH shark location OCEARCH

This satellite location ping off South Africa shows the only OCEARCH-tagged shark even remotely near the J-Bay (Jeffery Bay) Open surfing competition off Eastern Cape on Sunday was Madiba, a 9-foot, 659-lb. great white. Madiba was nearly 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the competition.

Rob Strickland, a lifelong conservationist and shark enthusiast, used the news of the shark attack to give his daughter a geography lesson about where sharks were located off the coast Costa Rica.

Strickland, who after meeting OCEARCH founder Chris Fischer became a member of its board of directors last year, is former CTO at Cricket and the Weather Channel as well as the former CIO at T-Mobile and Dish Network. He's currently the co-founder of TheDigitalNexus, a tech consultancy.

Strickland is one of a number of tech execs who've been drawn to OCEARCH, a non-profit, global, shark-tracking project that is trying to personify sharks through the use of tracking devices and social media. Strickland has also been critical to connecting OCEARCH with tech moguls that can help get its message out.

For example, Strickland connected OCEARCH with Xavient, a consultancy that helped the site develop a mobile app for Android smartphones. Previously, OCEARCH's mobile app worked only on iPhones.

Strickland is also connecting the research project with Televisa, the largest multimedia company in Latin America. Televisa is working to get the word out about OCEARCH's next project, which is tagging tiger and hammerhead sharks in the Gulf of Mexico this fall.

OCEARCH's Shark Tracker offers a near real-time view of about 130 sharks around the globe. The sharks run the gamut, from great whites and hammerheads to tigers and makos. The sharks are tracked to create a three-dimensional image of their activities. OCEARCH is hoping to develop successful conservation and management strategies by studying shark habits in granular detail.

screen shot 2015 07 20 at 11.55.25 am OCEARCH

This map shows the swimming patterns of Lydia, a 14-foot great white shark that was tagged two years ago. Each circle represents a location ping that occurs whenever the shark's dorsal fin breaks the water or it passes a designated buoy and sends a signal to a satellite. Since being tagged, Lydia has traveled more than 35,000 miles.

More importantly, OCEARCH has open-sourced all of its data, allowing scientists and shark enthusiasts alike to see tracking information at the same time.

Using OCEARCH's shark tracker, it's easy to see there was only one tagged shark in the area of Jefferey's Bay, where the shark attack on professional surfer Mick Fanning took place on Sunday. There are at least two dozen sharks off the coast of South Africa that OSEARCH is tracking.

Users of OCEARCH's mobile app often tweet about their favorite sharks' location and movements. The site's traffic has exploded over the past year or so.

The iPhone version of OCEARCH's mobile app has garnered 200,000 downloads and the Android version has 50,000 active users.

Some of the sharks OCEARCH tracks have more followers than human celebrities. Lydia, for example, has nearly 20,000 Twitter followers. Mary Lee, one of the first great white sharks OCEARCH tagged off Cape Cod, Mass. in 2012, has more than 80,000 Twitter followers. Every time a shark passes by a OCEARCH buoy and pings it with its location, social media lights up with activity around it.

OCEARCH's most popular sharks on Twitter OCEARCH and oneQube

The most popular sharks that OCEARCH tracks by Twitter handle.

Last year, a social media feeding frenzy over a 14-foot, 2,300-pound shark named Katharine crashed OCEARCH's website. The movements of Katharine between Cape Cod and the Gulf of Mexico led researchers to believe she may be pregnant.

Katharine's pregnancy instantly made her an online star as up to 100,000 scientists and amateur shark enthusiasts alike followed her daily movements. At the time, OCEARCH's Facebook page also had received as many as 5 million visits a week.

OCEARCH's Web traffic is 10 times what it was last year, and it's expected to grow 20 times more by the end of this year, according to Peter Bordes, CEO of oneQube, which sells social media audience-development software and has partnered with OCEARCH to help promote its cause. OneQube's software takes data on users -- such as their names, location and what they're posting on social media -- in order to help better target marketing and advertising.

For example, when OCEARCH researchers began tagging sharks off Australia earlier this year, OneQube's software allowed the project to target oceanographers and shark enthusiasts in Australia, who presumably would be more interested in the project because of their proximity to the action.

Mary Lee being tagged OCEARCH OCEARCH

Mary Lee, a 16-foot, 3,456-lb. great white being tagged off of Cape Cod, Mass. in Sept. 2012.

On Facebook last year, OCEARCH had 13 million visits. This year, Bordes predicts, it will reach 200 million impressions. But, it's not size of an audience but the quality that really matters, he said.

"Would you rather have 400,000 and 1% engagement or 50,000 people and 80% engagement?" oneQube's Bordes asked, referring to users who comment and return to the website or use the mobile app regularly. "This is a living, breathing database versus a static database."

The social media buzz around OCEARCH's shark tracking project has translated into opportunities for the non-profit to expand its relationship with product and media companies that want to be associated with the study of sharks.

"That's always been the goal," Bordes said. "How do we create this rising tide by marrying a great cause and the fascination with sharks to the technology that disseminates information in real time while building global audiences to effect change at scale?"

Bordes sees the public's attitude about sharks changing dramatically. That was illustrated last week, he said, when a great white beached itself on Cape Cod. Instead of killing it, beachgoers scrambled to save it -- and succeeded with the help of wildlife officials.

"It's amazing to see how people on the Cape put the shark back into the water," Bordes said. "We're learning how to cohabitate and respect their environment."

The OCEARCH shark tracker can also inform users when a shark has been killed, often by illegal fishing operations. Fishermen, often unaware what they're doing is illegal, return the tags to OCEARCH.

The project uses four tags: An acoustic tag that lasts for 10 years; a SPOT tag, which is a real-time satellite tag mounted to top of the dorsal fin; an accelerometer tag package; and a PSAT archival satellite tag, which records depth, temperature and light levels (used for geolocation) and stores the data to memory.

Katharine great white OCEARCH OCEARCH

Katharine, a 14ft., 2,300-lb. great white tagged off of Cape Cod in Aug. 2013, caused a social media storm when she was suspected of being pregnant.

On average, OCEARCH is collecting 100 data points every second -- 8.5 million data points per day. The sensors can even reveal if a shark changes its posture. The data shared with the public will also increase in the future as a Hadoop-style big data analytics cloud platform is added to the technology.

The data has also been useful for warning beachgoers that a tagged shark may be in the area. In January 2013, OCEARCH received a location ping from Mary Lee that the 16-foot, 3,500-pound shark was within 200 yards of Florida's Jacksonville Beach. Having penetrated the surf break, OCEARCH contacted local authorities to aler them and they cleared the water until she headed back out to sea.

Far from frightening the public, however, OCEARCH's project has created a worldwide community of citizen conservationists who are concerned with the sharks they track online. OCEARCH researchers believe its work has been critical to changing the public's attitude toward one of the ocean's apex predictors.

"We see people during the [Fanning] shark attack tweeting about how actually we're in their space. We should be more respectful about being in their environment," Bordes said. "Versus -- Jaws! Run!"

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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