No Shit, There’s Sharks in the Water: Notes on the Global Shark Tracker App

by The Deep Water Breaks

 

In California, we have a thing called the sig-alert, which is any unplanned event that causes the closing of one lane of traffic or more. For most of us, it’s a word that was only ever defined contextually. As in, we drive down the 101, and a guy in a helicopter says “We’ve got a sig-alert on the 101 North Bound to Santa Barbara,” at which point traffic slows to a halt and we stare off the freeway into the ocean, drinking our foo-foo latte’s, and typically one person in a car will say something like, “I hope no one got hurt.” But the sig-alerts are so common that they exist in the background of our minds, the muzack of traffic.  

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In the last six months, the global shark tracker has been adapted by many east coast surfers as a standard tool, like surf reports and (for the old hats) weather charts. Before going into the water, surfers will check the app or their computers to see if the water is safe for them to swim in. It has gotten so that rumors of shark sightings have become increasingly common, decreasing the number of surfers out in the water. 

The app is fascinating. It uses a global map to track the movements of sharks who have been tagged with positioning devices. The devices ping every so often, which correlates to a new data point on the map. Each tagged shark has a name, and you can look at images taken of the shark, and read what information is known about it: species, size, gender, etc. Such information has led to common tweets like, “Lucy has been spotted off Virginia Beach.” For scientists and surfers alike, the app has proved an incredibly valuable and amazing source of information on the places that sharks frequent, and the distances they will travel. Most recently, a Great White has been followed through the mid-Atlantic on course towards England; a trip that is considered unprecedented.

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The advent of this technology means a new relationship to sharks, and to the way we fear or appreciate them. While Jaws will likely remain the devils-shark-incarnate for most of us, we now have a situation where we become familiar with a particular shark’s territory and habits. The pings, like gang signs, mark a shark’s territory. You know that if you are at Virginia Beach you should probably check to make sure Lucy isn’t around. In a way, we are helping sharks maintain their territorial boundaries. There is no longer a need to see a fin cutting through the surface of the ocean, just a little ping on a phone while you stare out at sea.

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But this also criminalizes and singles out certain sharks. The truth is, for every shark we track, there must be hundreds that roam the ocean incognito, gliding around our feet, nuzzling our leashes. We can’t avoid them or be aware of them. And knowing the presence of one in the multitude doesn’t make us any safer. Just as a sig-alert will notify us of traffic jams, but it won’t prevent an accident. 

All in all, I think that the shark tracker is a scientists best friend and a surfer’s novelty toy. If anything, it might encourage a closer relationship to sharks, as we will come to understand that they constantly surround us in the ocean while rarely ever coming into contact with us.

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