When Sharks Turned Up at Their Beach, They Called in Drones

Once rare off Southern California beaches, great white sharks are beginning to show up more often. The newcomers are mostly juvenile sharks, which prefer the warm waters closer to shore. That means many beachgoers who are now spotting sharks have never seen the predators before.

“When these little fins started to pop up, everyone was scrambling to figure out what was going on,” said Douglas J. McCauley, a marine science professor and the director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

A new project using artificial intelligence called SharkEye may help keep track of these fearsome fish. The technology is being developed by Dr. McCauley’s lab (which works with A.I. researchers at Salesforce, the company led by his lab’s sponsor, Marc Benioff) and computer scientists at San Diego State University to monitor more of the oceanfront while learning about shark migrations.

SharkEye has been tested over the past two summers at Padaro Beach in Santa Barbara County, a popular area for surf camps that also happens to be a nursery for juvenile white sharks. Shark spotting there and in other places, when it occurs at all, is usually done by tracking tagged animals online, or by having someone stand on a paddle board in the water to keep an eye out.

With SharkEye, a pilot launches a drone that travels along a preprogrammed path in the sky, followed by a second meandering route to scan the water below. The drone stays about 120 feet up, allowing the sweeps to quickly cover a large area of the ocean. That height is also high enough to avoid bothering marine life.

The pilot monitors a video feed in real time, noting any sharks, and then sends a text to the 36 people who have signed up to get alerts — a group that includes lifeguards, surf camp instructors and beachside homeowners.

Dr. McCauley said the lab was working on different types of alerts so people would have information before venturing into the water. These might come through social media channels or even a “shark report” modeled off surf reports.

The drone footage also goes into a computer model that the team trained to recognize great white sharks. Combining that with other data, such as information on ocean temperature and other marine life migrations, researchers hope to use the power of artificial intelligence to develop predictions for when and where sharks will show up that could lead to ways to share the ocean as safely as possible.

Researchers are turning to A.I. to learn more about some marine animals, which, because they live under the vast oceans, have been harder to study than most land creatures.

Using hydrophones and A.I., Google built tools to automatically detect humpback whales and orcas by their sounds. Flukebook is a project that tracks individual dolphins and whales by using artificial intelligence to identify them by unique features on their tails and fins, much like facial recognition technology. Even without A.I., drones have allowed groups like Pelagios Kakunjá, a Mexican conservation organization, to study sharks more closely.

The increase in great white sharks off California is partially a result of climate change, which is pushing the animals, especially the juveniles, north from their usual haunts further south along California’s coast down into Baja California. Successful conservation efforts like the Marine Mammal Protection Act have helped some of the sharks’ favorite foods — seals and sea lions — rebound. And a ban on near-shore gillnets has reduced the number of sharks accidentally caught by commercial fishermen.

Even with the growing shark population, shark attacks are rare off the West Coast, with only 118, including six fatalities, since 2000, according to the nonprofit Shark Research Committee.

One of those attacks was at Padaro Beach over the summer, when the SharkEye team wasn’t flying a drone because of the coronavirus shutdown. A shark is believed to have bitten a woman swimming offshore, although her injuries were minor. And eight days later, a shark killed a surfer a few hours north in Santa Cruz — the first fatal shark attack in California since 2012.

There is no evidence that the rate of shark attacks is increasing even as more people use the beach, according to Chris Lowe, a professor in marine biology and the director of the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach. The chances of being bitten are still extremely low, but giving people more insight into the number of sharks in the area may help beachgoers make informed decisions about what they are willing to risk.

“The reality is, sharks aren’t going to change their behavior,” Dr. Lowe said. “This data is more valuable in changing people’s behavior.”

Chris Keet, the owner of Surf Happens, a local surf store that offers summer camps and private lessons on Padaro Beach, is already altering his business based on the SharkEye data. After SharkEye clocked nine sightings in one day in July, Mr. Keet decided to cancel a two-decade-old summer tradition in which campers dive for sand dollars and swim out to a buoy.

“Even though the sharks aren’t aggressive,” Mr. Keet said, “it just takes one.”

Because the SharkEye drone is not in use the whole time camp is in session, Mr. Keet still relies on people on paddle boards as lookouts, including himself. After growing up nearby and never seeing a shark, he now almost always spots a shadow or a fin cutting through the water when he’s on duty.

“They’re beautiful,” he said. “But it’s nerve-racking.”


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