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  • How Do You Get Citizen Scientists to Dive with Sharks?
  • Michael Bear

Given the current level of Galeophobia, or fear of sharks, that’s an excellent question. Most people will leave the water immediately if they think a shark is in the area. Oddly, the greatest number of those who fear sharks seem to come from those who rarely, if ever, go into the ocean—so, clearly, this is a primal fear, much like snakes or spiders.

Enter the average scuba diver. Our experience at Ocean Sanctuaries suggests that many (but not all) [End Page 6] divers have great respect for these apex predators and—ready for this?—Can’t wait to dive with them. They engender such awe and fear, that merely being in the vicinity of a shark is an adrenaline rush for many divers, to say nothing of the ‘fish tales’, which will be told later.

But, what about collecting scientific data on sharks? Again, our experience has been that there is a sub-group of ‘self-selecting,’ highly motivated divers, who are eager to get close enough to a shark to photograph it. In fact, they don’t need to be asked twice.

Now, what about the ethics and the inherent liability involved in asking people to dive with sharks? What happens when you ask citizen science divers to get close enough to sharks to photograph one?

First Encounter

My first encounter with a large shark came in the summer of 2009 while diving with a buddy off La Jolla. He and I were swimming about 6 feet apart, in a wide-open kelp forest, busily photographing things below us, when suddenly a large shadow appeared between us—we looked over in astonishment, to see a very large, 9–10 ft. Sevengill shark calmly and majestically swims between us—as if we were not even there. He was clearly unafraid of two humans down there in his domain—he was making it equally clear who the apex predator was—and it wasn’t us. After we recovered from our shock at having this huge animal glide gracefully between us, we rushed back onto the boat, babbling incoherently to our friends in high squeaky voices about having survived an encounter with the oceans’ most feared predator.

Encounters with these potentially dangerous predators evoke both fear and excitement in humans. They don’t always end in tragedy, either. Most human and shark encounters end with both species going their separate ways peacefully. But, my encounter gave me a strong motivation to study this particular species further, since other divers had been reporting encounters with (Notorynchus cepedianus) off and on for the past year (2009) in the San Diego area. I was curious why this was so since before that time, few encounters had been reported.

At that point in time, citizen science was not in the media as much as it is today and nowhere near as popular. For me, it began as a spreadsheet, which I made available to other divers online to fill in the details of their encounters. I simply wanted to know how many other divers were seeing them in the San Diego area. This was also just before the advent of Go Pro cameras, so there were no photographs in our database. It was not very reliable data, scientifically speaking!

Jump ahead to 2014, when citizen science was beginning to take off and Go Pro cameras were common among divers. Our database began to include both photographs and video to compare different sightings. We began to notice that certain Sevengill sharks were returning from year-to-year, identified by their markings (one, in particular, we called ‘Spot,’ due to a large white discolored area near the dorsal fin).

It was around this time that I made the acquaintance of Jason Holmberg, an information architect who had pioneered using an algorithm developed by NASA for star pattern recognition to identify whale sharks.

He had also developed a web-based application using two well-known pattern recognition algorithms to identify not only whale sharks, but any other animal with identifiable markings. The application, called Wildbook, was a perfect fit for our Sevengill Shark ID...