Exploring the Blue Serengeti -- There's An App For That

Aug 2, 2012

Stanford Marine Biologist Barbara Block won a Rolex Award for Enterprise, one of only five in the world this year. It honors those who take on major challenges.  Block’s challenge is getting you to connect with the ocean.

Dr. Barbara Block’s office at Stanford’s Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove is just steps from the ocean.  Her view is hard to beat.  “It’s like being on a boat.  I can see a humpback blow, a gray whale come by, occasionally we’ll see lots of dolphins in the bay.  But most importantly we can also see animals as diverse as sharks and the splashes of the salmon.  It’s just an incredible place,” said Block.  While she can easily identify the blow of a humpback or splash of a salmon, most people can’t.  “Over the last year I realized the hardest thing about protecting the open sea, the blue water, the place that most people don’t get to in their lifetime is this lack of personal connection,” said Block.

So she is trying to change that with her latest project, the Blue Serengeti Initiative.  She and her team are creating WiFi hot spots in the ocean for real-time monitoring of marine predators like sharks, tunas and turtles.  They’ll use buoys and roving wave gliders that can detect when a tagged animal is nearby.  All are in an area off the west coast called the California Current.  It runs from the US Canada border in the north and to the south past the tip of Baja California.  “Here off of America’s most populous coastline is one of the most remarkable ecosystems on earth, the California Current that to this day has albatross, leather backs , blue fin tuna, white sharks, blue whales, orcas. You name it, they’re here,” said Block.

While the real-time monitoring will provide valuable information to marine researchers, Block is trying to reach a different audience.  Her team is developing an I-Phone and I-Pad app where anyone can track these predators.  Dr. Randy Kochevar opens the soon to be released app, Shark Net, on his I-Pad.  Kochevar is a Marine Biologist in Block’s Lab. “There are kind of two views into the app.  So one of them is sort of a large map overview that shows you the various places along the central coast where we have listening stations where we are actively listening for white sharks,” said Kochevar.  The map on Kochevar’s I-Pad shows icons for several white sharks currently within range of a buoy.  Kochevar clicks on one.  Up pops a 3D image of a shark they call Tom Johnson. “Tom Johnson is one of the sharks that we’ve tagged and been observing for many years here in Northern California.  This 3D marking shows all the markings and scars on his body,” said Kochevar.  Right now the app focuses exclusively on connecting users with white sharks in specific areas of the California Current including Tomales Bay, the Farallones and Ano Nuevo.  “They’ll get a push notification just like you would if you got a text message from a friend. So this gives us a way of allowing people to make a more personal connection with these animals, and hopefully learn more about them,” said Kochevar.  

Creating a personal connection with the ocean lays the groundwork for the ultimate goal of the Blue Serengeti Initiative. That’s getting the California Current named a United Nations World Heritage Site.  It’s a level of international protection.  “The reason we have to take this approach is that throughout the world’s oceans, large predators have been fished to the point of population level extinction in many places.   And what we’ve got to do now is actually recognize the places that are unique that are intact and protect them before it’s too late,” said Block.  Seeking the World Heritage Site designation is more of a political process than scientific one.  So it will take getting the public interested in protecting the deep blue sea and broad public support to get the right policy makers involved.  

The Shark Net app will be released later this month.  You can learn more about it, and Barbara Block’s work with white sharks during the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.