Previously seldom off the beaches of Southern California, great white sharks appear more and more frequently. The newcomers are mostly juvenile sharks who prefer the warm water closer to the coast. That means many beachgoers who watch sharks now have never seen the predators.
"When those little fins showed up, everyone was trying to figure out what was going on," said Douglas J. McCauley, professor of marine science and director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
A new artificial intelligence project called SharkEye could help keep an eye on these fearsome fish. The technology is led by Dr. McCauley's lab (which works with AI researchers at Salesforce, the company led by its lab's sponsor, Marc Benioff) and computer scientists from San Diego State University to monitor more of the coast while learning about shark migrations .
SharkEye has been tested for the past two summers at Padaro Beach in Santa Barbara County's, a popular surf camp area that is also a nursery school for young great white sharks. Spotting sharks there and elsewhere, if any, is usually done by tracking tagged animals online or by having someone stand on a paddle board in the water to keep an eye on them.
Using SharkEye, a pilot launches a drone that moves on a pre-programmed path in the sky, followed by a second meandering route to scan the water below. The drone stays about 120 feet tall so the sweeps can quickly cover a large area of the ocean. This altitude is also high enough not to disturb marine life.
The pilot monitors a real-time video feed, notes sharks, and then sends a text to the 36 people who signed up to receive notifications – a group that includes lifeguards, surf camp instructors, and beach homeowners.
Dr. McCauley said the lab is working on several types of alerts so people can get information before they venture into the water. This can be done via social media channels or even via a “shark report” that is modeled on surfing reports.
The drone material also goes into a computer model that the team trained to recognize great white sharks. Combined with other data such as information on sea temperature and other migrations of marine life, the researchers hope to use artificial intelligence to make predictions about when and where sharks will appear, which could result in the ocean being shared as safely as possible.
Researchers turn to A.I. learn more about some marine animals that, because they live under the vast oceans, have been more difficult to study than most land animals.
With the help of hydrophones and A.I., Google has developed tools that can automatically detect humpback whales and orcas based on their noises. Flukebook is a project that uses artificial intelligence to track individual dolphins and whales to identify them based on unique features on their tails and fins, similar to facial recognition technology. Even without the A.I., drones have enabled groups like Pelagios Kakunjá, a Mexican conservation organization, to examine sharks more closely.
The increase in great white sharks off California is partly due to climate change, which is driving the animals, especially the young, from their usual locations further south along the California coast to Baja California. Successful conservation efforts like the Marine Mammal Protection Act have helped some of shark's favorite foods – seals and sea lions – get back on their feet. And a ban on coastal gillnets has reduced the number of sharks that have been accidentally caught by commercial fishermen.
Even with the growing shark population, shark attacks off the west coast are rare, with only 118, including six deaths, since 2000, according to the nonprofit Shark Research Committee.
One of these attacks took place in Padaro Beach during the summer when the SharkEye team did not fly a drone because of the coronavirus shutdown. It is believed that a shark bit 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.
According to Chris Lowe, professor of marine biology and director of the Shark Lab at California State University in Long Beach, there is no evidence that the rate of shark attacks is increasing as more and more people use the beach. The chances of being bitten are still extremely small, but giving people more insight into the number of sharks in the area can help beachgoers make informed decisions about what to risk.
"The reality is that sharks are not going to change their behavior," said Dr. Lion. "This data is more valuable for changing people's behavior."
Chris Keet, the owner of Surf Happens, a local surf shop that offers summer camps and private lessons on Padaro Beach, is already changing his business based on the SharkEye data. After SharkEye clocked nine sightings in a day in July, Mr. Keet decided to break a two-decade-old summer tradition of campers diving for sand dollars and swimming out to a buoy.
"Even if the sharks aren't aggressive," said Keet, "it only takes one."
With the SharkEye drone not operating throughout camp, Mr. Keet still relies on people on paddle boards for lookouts, including himself. Having grown up nearby and never seeing a shark, he now spots almost always a shadow or a fin that cuts through the water on duty.
"You are beautiful," he said. "But it's nerve-wracking."