Cape Town took action after suffering a spate of shark attacks in 2004. The local business and surfer community began informally organizing lifeguards and car guards to help keep watch with binoculars from a mountain overlooking the beaches near False Bay. If a spotter sees a shark approaching the beach, the mountain spotter radios a beach spotter who manually activates a simple warning system consisting of different-colored flags and a siren that alerts people to leave the water.
Funding from the City of Cape Town and the Save Our Seas Foundation helped the effort evolve into the formal Shark Spotters program (no relation to the Australian drone initiative). For 14 years, the program has shown how a low-tech community approach can help reduce the risk of shark attacks.
Like Australia, South Africa’s Shark Spotters program has experimented with using drones. But the drones’ limited battery life of 15 to 20 minutes, along with high wind conditions in the area, made them fairly ineffective in providing constant shark surveillance, Waries explains. They proved more useful in confirming the identity of specific shark species after human spotters made the initial discovery.
A more promising effort could complement human spotters with automatic shark spotting based on fixed cameras installed high up on poles or towers. Shark Spotters has teamed up with PatternLab, a company based in Lausanne, Switzerland, to develop the necessary pattern-recognition software. But the South African programs generally make do with more limited resources in comparison with Australia.
For their part, U.S. shark researchers seem to take a more cautionary view of the latest “smart” shark-surveillance technologies—particularly given their inability to distinguish between different shark species. “A [great] white shark is a very different organism than a blacktip we see in Volusia County,” says Gavin Naylor, the director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History. “They’re as different as a human is from a dog.”
Environments also play a factor in a technology’s effectiveness, says Gregory Skomal, a marine biologist at the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. He cites the cost and lack of funding for testing such equipment in local waters. “All these technologies will depend heavily on the area you’re trying to deploy them,” Skomal says. “Something developed for clear water in Australia may not work well in the turbid waters of Cape Cod.”
Still, if such technologies can help Australia strike a better balance between protecting humans and protecting threatened marine species, it could mean a lot less blood in the water—and increased buy-in for such innovations elsewhere. As it stands, the high price tags have not dampened the enthusiasm of Australian start-ups for market expansion. The Ripper Group has been talking with seven different international organizations about expanding its drone surveillance worldwide, says the company’s chief operations officer, Ben Trollope.
Craig Anderson and Smart Marine Systems have also launched a $25,000 crowdfunding campaign aimed at deploying Clever Buoy at Corona Del Mar in Newport Beach, California, the site of a nonfatal 2016 shark attack on a triathlete.
“I think we’ll very quickly follow through with Florida and Massachusetts,” Anderson says. “This is just the start of what we see as a significant rollout.”