IDEAS

We’re all shark researchers now

Cell phone photos and social media posts about shark sightings are helping researchers.

People watch from the beach as a colony of several hundred seals sit on a sandbar at High Head Beach during low tide in Truro. Mario Tama

On a glistening summer morning in late July, a commotion about 70 feet off an ocean beach in North Truro caught the attention of Astrid David, whose family owns a cluster of cottages overlooking the dunes. The circling fin, thrashing bodies, and eruption of blood left little doubt that a white shark had just turned an unsuspecting seal into its breakfast.

Guests came running to the edge of the bluff, cell phones in hand, hoping to catch a glimpse. All that was left to see was a rippling ribbon of blood.

Barely a decade ago that’s where the excitement would have ended. Not in the age of smart phones.

The awe we once shared by word of mouth, one person at a time, is being broadcast to millions now. Grainy flip phone pictures have been replaced by sharp, high-resolution images providing irrefutable proof of events and turning random observers into participants in a new generation of citizen science.

A picture taken of the red streak that morning found its way via tweet to the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, a Chatham-based nonprofit that supports shark research, conservation, and public safety efforts. Within minutes, the drone of a spotter plane could be heard overhead, followed by the arrival of a pair of speed boats near the spot where the seal had been devoured.

A team of researchers from the conservancy and the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries happened to be working nearby when the notification of the predation, as they matter-of-factly call it, popped up on their phones. The tweet caught the attention of the media, too, of course. Boston-area media outlets soon hopped into the conversation, asking to use the picture on their own social channels and noontime newscasts, where viewers would gobble up the story about yet another shark sighting off a Cape Cod beach.

An Eastham resident who was taking beach photographs caught a shark attacking and eating a seal about 100 yards from the shore. photo Bruce Langsen

Labor Day has come and gone, but even with snow on the ground, shark news is still getting bites. As recently as Dec. 1, a Facebook post about a dead shark beached in the sand in Wellfleet was widely shared. The primeval fear of sharks exploited by movies like “Jaws” has given way to a public fascination and an insatiable interest in learning more about them.

That sense of wonder — and the accompanying photos and tweets — has been a boon, not just to shark researchers and public safety officials on Cape Cod — who have partnered with the public to better understand shark behavior and prevent and prepare for future attacks — but to science as a whole.

The National Science Foundation recognized the game-changing potential of a computer-equipped citizenry when it launched its crowd-sourced science platform, Zooniverse, in 2009. The world’s largest platform for people-powered research, according to the NSF, Zooniverse currently has over 1.9 million registered volunteers worldwide contributing measurements, images, observations, and insights to professional researchers engaged in hundreds of active, online projects.

“There has been a transformation where people can participate in science based on a computer in their pocket,” said Ellen McCallie, a scientist and educator with the NSF’s Division of Research on Learning in Formal and Informal Settings. “We have phones with GPS, and cameras and all sorts of sensors in our pockets that tell us about water quality, air pollution, and so much more. It allows us to quantify and better understand what we are looking at. As long as there is cell phone service, you can share what you find. It adds to the democratization of science and amplifies it many times over.”

The crowd-sourced element of Cape Cod shark research has evolved more organically as the population of white sharks off Cape Cod — and awareness of their presence — has grown. It began in 2010 when Greg Skomal, a senior scientist with the Division of Marine Fisheries conducting a little-known population study of white sharks, was approached by Cynthia Wigren, who helped launch the conservancy in 2012.

It was under Wigren’s direction that the conservancy hired Conserve.io, a Florida software development firm, to create the Sharktivity app.

The app has made the conservancy a clearinghouse for photos, videos, and shark sighting data generated by the public. The real time information is shared with Skomal and his team, as well as a group of local officials and emergency personnel who provide public safety alerts. Researchers also use it to share their acoustic tagging data with the public which, along with the photos and videos the conservancy posts, stokes excitement in the shark research and generates support.

“Social networking has played a big role in expanding our reach,” says Wigren. “It’s enabled us to engage people from across the world and to keep people who are interested in sharks, shark conservation, and shark research up-to-date on what AWSC is working on and what we’re learning along the way.”

Skomal doesn’t do social media. But a researcher who works with him, John Chisholm, is all in. At first he used it to counter misinformation about shark sightings and to let people know that the sharks he and his team were tagging were close to shore. Chisholm’s Twitter account, MA_Shark, has since become a valuable pipeline for information on sightings and a meeting place for shark enthusiasts. He maintains the team’s database and constantly monitors social channels for posts about sightings from the Atlantic to the Gulf of Mexico. His followers have begun sending information directly to him.

Just ten years ago, Chisholm said he and Skomal relied on newspaper articles or someone randomly emailing about a shark sighting.

“Now we’re getting more information and timelier information,” Chisholm said. “Now people are posting it from a boat. Social media has changed everything.”

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