You might not realize it, but it’s always out there. Planning. Growing. Waiting for the perfect time to strike. You never quite know when it will happen. Maybe July. Maybe August. But you know it’s coming, and you can’t escape it. In an awesome display of speed and power, it bursts from an otherwise calm summer sea and takes over. Terrifying though it is, you just can’t look away.
I’m talking, of course, about the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, the seven-day marathon of programming celebrating the world’s most feared—and revered—predator. Now, in the midst of it’s 25th year of sidelining would-be beach-goers, Shark Week enjoys ratings (drawing in 3.3 million viewers in its first hour in 2011) previously reserved for major television events and pop culture phenomena like the Super Bowl or American Idol.
Scientists, meanwhile, are hard at work studying these creatures, and they need your help! I know you’re thinking, and don’t worry. We saw Jaws too. But did you know that several of the over 400 species of sharks, including the iconic Great White, are endangered or vulnerable due to commercial fishing and shark finning?
Here’s a few citizen science projects from around the world enlisting the help of divers, fishermen and boaters to contribute data for scientific study or conservation purposes. Happy Shark Week!
Shark Trust invites everyone, especially recreational divers, to report their shark sightings and send in photos for inclusion in their global database used by scientists and conservationists to track and manage sustainable shark populations around the world. Shark Trust ensures the security of its data and safeguards local populations by listing only the region of the sighting, never the exact location, lest it be misused by hunters or fishermen.
According to Michael Bear of California Diver Magazine, divers in the waters off San Diego suddenly began reporting sevengill sightings in 2009. “So little is known about them and their [migration] habits,” said Bear, “[so I wanted to find out why] they began appearing and congregating in a specific spot.” Through his partnership with the Shark Observation Network, the Sevengill Shark Sightings data will contribute to a global database available to researchers and the general public. Bear also founded Citizen Scientists of the Ocean on Facebook, whose relatively modest (but active) membership includes “Her Deepness,” oceanographer and explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle. Like it!
Spot a fin and email it in! The Basking Shark Project from the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance invites fisherman, whale watchers, and boaters to report their sightings of the basking shark, one of the world’s largest fish at 39 feet long, second in size to only the whale shark. Their triangular dorsal fin often breaches the surface when they feed—a chilling image from an all-but-harmless beast. They’re filter feeders! Your data will help scientists better understand their local population size and distribution patterns.
If you’re lucky enough to spot or swim alongside one of these rare, majestic (and endangered) creatures, snap a photo and send it to ECOCEAN’s Whale Shark Photo-identification Library. Using the same algorithm that NASA astronomers use to analyze star patterns and thus compare photos of the night sky to guide telescopes, scientists can identify and track individual whale sharks by the unique spot patterns on their backs. According to Wired, the approach is not limited to whale sharks, having been adapted for tracking polar bears by their whisker patterns and humpback whales by the shape of their fins, and could revolutionize wildlife tagging and tracking as we know it.
Why Sharks Matter
If you find yourself in Charleston, SC, you can help David Shiffman from Southern Fried Science and the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources capture, tag, and release their resident shark species. At least you’ll be on a boat. Anyone can volunteer, but beware of seasickness!