Maybe sharks just aren't that into us
If there seem to be more shark sightings than ever along the world’s coastlines, it may be thanks to drones. Aside from driving all those scary headlines, drones are, in fact, helping researchers dispel some misguided fears: it turns out shark encounters aren’t so rare. People often don’t even realise when there are sharks around them, as drone footage reveals. Here’s the thing, though: most of the time the sharks don’t seem to pay humans all that much attention.
“The technology has really revolutionised and given us a completely different view of sharks,” says Chris Lowe, a professor of marine biology and director of the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach.
Previously, researchers such as Lowe could only hop on planes and helicopters to spy on sharks. That was expensive, he says, and was mostly used just to count how many sharks were out there. With drones, that’s all changed.
“We have a low-cost tool that’s giving insight, kind of a bird’s-eye view as to what sharks are doing and more importantly: what they’re doing when they’re around people,” Lowe told The Verge.
Lowe’s research team is combing through about 700 hours of drone footage that they’ve either taken themselves or received from others to study shark behaviour and how they react to people. In one 42-second clip taken off the coast of California, five sharks can be seen swimming next to three surfers in wetsuits. The people sit casually on their boards, legs dangling in the water, as the sharks pass them by.
The team has studied hundreds of interactions between people and young white sharks. While their research isn’t finished nor published yet, Lowe has a cursory analysis: “It looks like so far, the sharks don’t care. They treat people as if they’re flotsam, just floating debris on the surface.” Sharks, it would seem, generally ignore people unless they’re being chased or harassed.
That’s probably good news given interactions between humans and sharks could be on the rise. Lowe’s research could ultimately inform authorities’ decisions on whether to close a beach if sharks have been spotted nearby. That becomes a tougher call if juvenile sharks are hanging out for weeks or even months at a time — potentially forcing beach closures even if those sharks don’t pose a significant threat.
“From a public safety standpoint, there’s been no scientific evidence to back up any of this. And now for the first time, we have some science,” Lowe says.
As more people and sharks run into each other, there are also more amateurs documenting them with drones. Whether all this footage contributes to research or just winds up on social media, Lowe says it has helped to cast sharks in a new light. The sharks are in their natural environment — not cast as the villain in films such as Jaws. “There’s no doubt drones have given people a different perspective because they get to see sharks around people and see that the sharks aren’t attacking,” he concludes.