PACIFIC GROVE -- With the proliferation of smartphones and Wi-Fi hot spots, a constant Internet connection on land is the new normal. But now great white sharks are also wired in -- and anyone with an iPhone can track their whereabouts off the California coast.
Shark Net, an app that is the brainchild of a team at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station in Pacific Grove, uses the latest in marine animal tagging technology. It taps into a small network of satellite-enabled buoys that "listen" for specially tagged white sharks from the Farallon Islands to southern Big Sur.
The app, available only on Apple products, lets users get to know sharks by their names. Each shark has a biography and calling-card photo of its dorsal fin. Some sharks also have interactive 3-D models and videos that allow users to see how they swim and to get acquainted with them.
The Hopkins team, led by prominent marine biologist Barbara Block, specializes in tracking the habits of large marine animals.
Block said the central California coastline hosts a huge influx of large marine predators, including blue whales, seals, sea turtles and white sharks, between August and October. Block refers to the area as the "Blue Serengeti."
"Here along the most popular coastline of America, we've got something equivalent to Africa happening in our seas," Block said.
White sharks, no doubt, retain the most mystique in pop culture. Movies featuring the animals run the cinematic gamut from the acclaimed "Jaws" to the campy "Sharknado." In most movies, the giants are portrayed as ruthless, razor-toothed killing machines.
In the real world, white sharks infrequently attack humans. Many scientists think attacks are usually the result of mistaken identity -- for example, sharks may think a surfer lying on a surfboard in a wet suit is a seal.
Many scientists and activists say sharks pose less risk to humans than humans pose to them.
Block hopes the app will help people connect with white sharks in a personal way and inspire the public to push for greater protection of the sharks and their habitats.
In the scientific sphere, Block is known for her research on bluefin tuna. But the former MacArthur "genius grant" winner cares deeply about the health of the ocean and all its creatures.
Parts of the Blue Serengeti are designated marine sanctuaries, Block noted, but many areas remain unprotected or underprotected.
Block's team developed the app to get people thinking about protecting additional marine habitats. "Our goal as conservationists is to manage these predators when they come to our shores," she said.
Dawn Hayes, education and outreach coordinator of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, said the opinion of average people goes a long way toward establishing and increasing environmental protection.
"Involving the public, to me, is the key," Hayes said. "I think something like this app gives everybody an opportunity to participate in the stewardship of the ocean."
Block expressed the need for greater protection by explaining how sharks and other marine predators play a critical role in maintaining the stability of the ecosystem.
Top predators like the white shark, she said, help keep balance in the Blue Serengeti by doing what they do best: eating. By keeping the numbers of other animals in check, their actions have a cascading effect down the food chain that helps keep both predators and those they prey upon in check, even in the face of climate change.
To some land dwellers, swimming with virtual sharks on their phones between rounds of Candy Crush Saga might seem like just another day in today's world of tomorrow. But the road to the marriage of science, data and technology has been a long one.
"It's really a challenge to go out and count mountain lions," Block said. "Try doing the same underneath the sea."
Not until the last 20 years have marine biologists been able to use tags attached to a marine animal's body to track its whereabouts. Modern tags collect speed, depth and temperature data and send them via radio waves to satellites. But radio waves don't travel far underwater. To get around this, some tags pop off the animal after 30 to 90 days and float to the surface, where they transmit their data over satellite in one big chunk.
Shark Net relies on a tag that uses sound waves to transmit its data. Similar to how FasTrak communicates with toll booths at Bay Area bridges, an acoustic tag emits an individual high-frequency sound that is picked up by receivers floating nearby. The tag is attached to the tough skin next to the dorsal fin on the shark's back with a special lance.
Until recently, scientists had to retrieve the receiver to get their hands on its data.
But the latest generation of acoustic receiver buoys are now able to transmit their data via satellite. The buoys dangle an underwater hydrophone that listens for the acoustic tags. When the hydrophone "hears" a shark nearby, it transmits the data to the buoy, which then sends the data via satellites to Block in real time. Block's team puts the data into the Shark Net app within an hour.
With the help of a Rolex Award for Enterprise and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Block now has five of these buoys in strategic locations at the Farallones, Tomales Point, Point Reyes, Año Nuevo and Piedras Blancas.
Block believes the buoys are important steps to preserving a robust, valuable ecosystem.
"We were having trouble making people think, 'Why not make a Yellowstone?'" Block said. They then realized that the real-time data the satellite buoys enabled could "bring the shark story home to the public."
Block says her team is still ironing out the kinks in the app, which has received generally good reviews in Apple's App Store. Many reviewers left comments saying they enjoyed the ability to interact with the sharks. Yet for some asking "What's the point?" the message seemed to be falling on deaf ears.
Members of Block's team plan to continue to deploy buoys along the California coast. And as they refine the app, Block said, they hope to include salmon and mako sharks as they continue to "get the public excited by the fact that we have white sharks right here in our neighborhood."