Ocean Hotspots Let Researchers Track Marine Life
February 18, 2013

Ocean ‘WiFi Hotspots’ Let Scientists Study Everything From Bacteria To Whales

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

As wireless technology progresses, biologists are finding new ways to harness these advancements and further their research in the process. At the annual meeting of“¯American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Boston this Sunday, Stanford marine sciences professor Barbara Block discussed a new method for “biologging” the activities of various sea creatures using wireless technology.

Using an innovative combination of miniaturized technologies and increased sensor capacity in conjunction with solar-powered wave gliders and mobile technologies, Block said her team is creating a “wired ocean” capable of delivering live feeds of animal movements.

According to Block, cutting edge computer technology has vastly improved researchers´ ability to collect data from the sea for organisms as small as bacteria and as large as whales. Her research is currently focused on the ecosystem off the western coast of the United States.

“I think this is one of the wildest places we have left in the sea,” she said in a web video. “This region is actually worthy of protection at the level of a World Heritage Site.”

“But how do we protect the open spaces of the ocean?” she asked.

To track salmon, tuna and other sea creatures, Block and her team have deployed a fleet of small autonomous vehicles that are outfitted with sensors for receiving tagged animal data, dubbed “ocean WiFi hotspots” by the team. These hotspots allow the biologists to track and observe animal behaviors unencumbered, in their native environment.

“Detailed observations of animal movements in their aquatic environment have significantly (improved) our understanding of ecosystem function, population structure, fisheries management, physiological and evolutionary constraints of species,” read a statement on the conference website.

“Animals are particularly adept at finding areas of interest to oceanographers (fronts, upwelling areas) and they provide important insights into regions of the oceans that are difficult and expensive to monitor (e.g. Polar Regions),” the statement continued.

The system detected its first sea creature back in August of last year — an 18-foot-long female great white shark.

"This very brave yellow glider successfully transmitted a detection of its first white shark: White Shark 62141,” Block announced via email.

Technology has also made the professor´s research available to anyone with a smart phone. Using an app called SharkNet, anyone can access the data relayed by the hotspots. If a shark passes with 1,000 feet of the hot-spot, the system is programmed to notify the user´s app. The smartphone application also contains interactive maps, historical tracking data and 3D models of both the system hotspots and even some of the sharks.

The Stanford professor´s work, dubbed the Blue Serengeti Initiative, is just one piece of a much larger project that aims to establish a network of instruments that study the biosphere on the most detailed level ever as it is altered by human activity.

Block´s work is also a part of the Tagging of Pacific Predators (TOPP) program, a study that invested $25 million in electronic tagging to allow marine scientists from five countries to track ocean hot spots off the California coast.