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Do Go Into the Water

With sharks already in the ocean, were sharks in the plumbing really so unbelievable?

The summer that Jaws released, my grandparents installed a gorgeous blue swimming pool. A gorgeous blue swimming pool that I refused to enter all of that broiling hot summer for fear that a great white shark had somehow slipped from the ocean—perhaps through the plumbing, probably through the plumbing—to land hungrily in my Grandpa Dan’s backyard, starved for nothing less than my chubby preteen bod. I’d stick a nervous toe into the gorgeous blue and scream. I was a ninny.

But I wasn’t, and I’m not, a lonely ninny. As the Discovery Channel’s massively popular five-day Shark Week stunt attests, our numbers are legion. And what’s most ninny-like about our kind is that we know almost nothing about that which we fear the most: The great white shark.

Great white sharks are hugely feared and very little understood.

By “we,” I don’t mean chubby preteens. In fact, some 35 years after Jaws unnaturally bounced onto a boat, scientists still know very little about great whites’ habits, mating grounds, killing fields, and migratory routes. There are several reasons for this, not the least of them being the difficulty in marking or tagging a two-ton predatory creature with three rows of knife-sharp teeth.

But that’s changing. Scientists at Stanford University’s Blue Serengeti Initiative have teamed up with the Global Tagging of Pelagic Predator (GTOPP) team of biologists, engineers, computer scientists, and educators to tag and track such little understood creatures as the great white as well as Bluefin Tuna, Laysan Albatross, and some 30-plus other ocean-bound species.

What emerges is a fascinating map, an illuminated pattern of formerly unknown deep water passage tracked in part by a new robot. A solar-powered “wave-glider” robot uses its wifi to catch the trail given by the sharks’ mapping devices, allowing it to skim the surface above these swift giants and mark their path. The first shark was detected last summer, the robot catching an electronic whiff of an 18-foot-long female. According to a recent feature for Discovery.com, the GTOPP’s director Dr. Barbara Block envisions a “wired ocean” with solar-powered robotic wifi hot spots all over it that will allow us to track the invisible denizens that populate the vast space under the surface.

Wouldn’t you rather see this chipper little boat in the water than a dorsal fin?
(They both indicate a shark.)

Of course there’s an app. Shark Net – Predators of the Blue Serengeti is a free iOS app that allows the user the same peek at the information captured by the robots that a scientist has.

But that’s just a sweet lure to the tougher work that GTOPP tackles, using its tracking data to show warming oceans as well as to identify lush feeding grounds.

Because after all, the more we know about the oceans—the safer our swimming pools become.