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Shark-tracking robot to tail rapidly growing species

There is a big spike in the number of shark sightings along busy West Coast beaches.

After a great white attacked a swimmer off a pier near Los Angeles last month, a fisherman was blamed for provoking the animal. But now, scientists are using technology to reveal the secrets of sharks, CBS News' Carter Evans reports.

Simon Swart has been surfing in Santa Monica Bay for decades, but it was only a few years ago, when he started stand-up paddle boarding, that he got a whole new perspective on the ocean.

"I had visibility with everything that was going on around me," Swart said. "I could see down, like, it was amazing."

Thanks to that elevated point of view, earlier this summer, he spotted a seven-foot-long great white shark.

"There's nothing more chilling than seeing that fin cut through the water," Swart said.

Simon's not alone. According to the non-profit Shark Research Committee, shark sightings along the densely populated coast of the Santa Monica Bay grew from just 3 in 2003 to 37 last year.

Swart said he sees sharks "just about every other time, and I'm in the water three or four times a week, so probably a couple of times a week."

California State University Long Beach marine biologist Chris Lowe said most of the great whites are non-aggressive newborns and pose little threat to humans.

"I think our ocean's getting healthier," he said. "We've done a lot to clean up our air, to clean up our water, to better manage our fisheries, and that's why I think white sharks are coming back."

Lowe and other marine biologists are unsure if the adult sharks are nearby.

"That's the big question," he said.

On an island 22 miles off the coast of California, Lowe is testing out a new tool he hopes will unlock the many secrets of the great white: a shark-following robot with a microphone, camera and tracking technology attached.

Underwater drone
CBS News

"I call it a shark surveillance vehicle," Lowe said. "They're programmed to start to act like a shark. In order to follow a shark, you have to act like a shark."

Computer scientist Chris Clark helped build the underwater drone. But before they use it on great whites, they're testing it on smaller leopard sharks.

"These are like microphones, only they're for underwater," Clark said. "We'll catch a shark. We'll put a tag on it that transmits an acoustic signal every few seconds, and that signal is going to be heard by those two hydrophones."

The device knows where a shark is, and it's programmed to follow it.

"We're collecting two basic types of data," Clark said. "The first is, you know, the shark's position at every time. But we're also gathering environmental data, how cold or warm is the water at this place where the shark is."

"These become a really good test model for us, and once we kind of develop the technology, we'll be able to readily adapt this for the juvenile white sharks in Santa Monica Bay."

Hopefully, Clark and Lowe's technology will help solve the mystery baffling Californians along their most-populated shoreline.