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Floating Robot Tech Lets You Track Great White Sharks Swimming Along California Coast In Real Time

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) -- Beneath the surface of the ocean off the California coast, lies the mysterious world of a ferocious predator: the Great White Shark.

"I'm a surfer and I spend countless hours here. I would never want to see one in that water," said Paddy Sullivan of San Francisco.

Not much is known about the behavior and lifestyle of white sharks.

But now, thanks to marine biologists at Hopkins Marine Station at Stanford University, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute -- along with a remarkable sea-faring robot out of Silicon Valley -- some secrets of these oceanic giants are coming to light.

For the first time ever, online and in real time, scientists as well as the public can detect and track the locations of white sharks along California's central coast.

"Within seconds of a white shark swimming by, we receive the signal and right to your iPhone or another device, you can actually see the shark that's there," said Prof. Barbara Block, an expert in how large pelagic fishes utilize the open ocean environment.

Their efforts are part of a program known as the global Tagging of Pelagic Predators or TOPP for short.

TOPP is an international, multidisciplinary collaboration among biologists, engineers, computer scientists and educators. You can see the real time shark locations on the TOPP website.

The Wired Ocean
TOPP scientists have placed Iridium enabled buoys and Wave Gliders in the National Marine Sanctuary (

Once there, click on "Glider," then "current" glider and zoom in on the colorful markers. Those red markers reveal where and when the Great Whites are traveling. Right now, it's showing a group of white sharks near Ano Nuevo State Park in San Mateo County.

"You know we've got a technology and a platform that can do things that no one has been able to do before," said Gary Gysin. Gysin is the CEO of Liquid Robotics, the inventor of the seafaring robot.

The project has been funded by Rolex, Discovery and the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Dr. Block is a Rolex Laureate who was awarded the prestigious prize for her independent thinking and innovative approach to tagging pelagic fishes.

Here's how the sharks are tracked: In a tiny dinghy scientists from Stanford and the Monterey Bay Aquarium travel to hot spots off the coast where great whites are known to gather.

From the boat, using a seal decoy, they lure the sharks to the surface and tag them with a special acoustic device.

The device sends out a coded ping.

"And we've put receivers in those areas that receive acoustic signals," explained marine biologist Dr. Randy Kochevar.

The code goes straight up to orbiting satellites and then back down to the web, revealing the locations of the sharks.

Using the latest technology, scientists have placed Iridium enabled "smart" buoys around the hot spots which include: Ano Nuevo, Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, Tomales Bay, the Farallones, Chagos, and Palmyra.

Wave Glider
WaveGlider is a floating sensor buoy that tracks movements of Great White Sharks off the California coast. (Liquid Robotics)

But the data "king of the sea" is the seafaring robot known as a Wave Glider.

"We can stay out at sea for up to a year," said Gysin.

It's what's inside these wave gliders that makes Silicon Valley tick.

"The brains of the operation are this box right here," explained Greg Lynch. Lynch is an electro-mechanical specialist with Liquid robotics. He showed KPIX 5 how the glider works.

Inside, under solar panels, are a command and control box, GPS, Iridium satellite link, cellular and Wi-Fi communications.

The glider is packed with sensors and uses a cloud-based operating system.

And while its route is pre-programmed thousands of miles away, humans in a control room at Liquid Robotics monitor it -- and can steer it over the Internet.

"It's a great technology," said Lynch.

The glider uses no fossil fuel; only renewable energy. It can travel across oceans.

The Wave Glider is powered by solar panels, and propelled by a system that converts ocean waves into energy. It is also extraordinarily quiet.

Now, this Silicon Valley glider is giving scientists invaluable information about the hidden world of California's great whites.

"If we understand what is happening with the predators, we can begin to get a picture of how the whole ecosystem functions," said Kochevar.

"There are all sorts of things going on that we can measure better with this technology and really protect it and preserve it," said Gysin.

Shark Tracking Map
An online map shows the tracks of the currently deployed Wave Glider, which is equipped with an acoustic receiver which is listening for white sharks carrying acoustic tags. (image via

Here's the great hope for the great whites: if we can see them, we may want to protect them as well as our endangered oceans.

"We just need to know more and I think that technology serves to that end," said surfer Paddy Sullivan.

There is still a large number of white sharks off the Central California Coast, and they will be here for the next few weeks. By the end of February, some will go to Hawaii and others will travel midway to Hawaii at a spot the scientists have dubbed "The Shark Café." It is still a mystery why they stop every year at this spot and what they do when they get there. Eventually,they will return to the California Coast.


Hopkins Marine Station at Stanford University
Monterey Bay Aquarium
Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute:
Glider Map
Ano Nuevo State Park
Liquid Robotics
Rolex Awards for Enterprise

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