Tiffany Poon dives with sharks. In fact, it’s one the biggest highlights of her diving year.
“As soon as the first one appears, usually in spring, I’ll be at La Jolla Cove spending as much time as possible with them,” Poon says. “Sometimes they’re shy and keep their distance, but often they’ll come by close enough for a nice photograph, and every now and then come in close to eyeball me with my strange camera.”
Poon is a citizen scientist for Ocean Sanctuaries, a nonprofit dedicated to researching and protecting sharks and other marine species.
Divers Mike Bear and Barbara Lloyd started the organization’s first research project in 2009 after Bear had his own happy encounter with a sevengill shark while diving near San Diego.
During the past eight years, what started as a simple survey of local dive sightings has grown to an international study of sevengills and other shark species, an online platform that uses NASA technology to analyze shark freckles, and a social media presence that educates people about ocean conservation.
Soon on the horizon for Ocean Sanctuaries is a new tidepooling project for non-divers, new partnerships with schools to foster community support for marine conservation, and a new citizen science certification program that can be used (for free) to prepare volunteers with the basic skills needed to participate in any kind of citizen science project.
FROM SPREADSHEETS TO SPACE TECHNOLOGY
Sevengill sharks are opportunistic predators that can grow to up to 10 feet long and usually hang out at the bottom of bays or in the shallower waters of estuaries.
They have been seen along the Pacific coastlines of the western U.S., Canada, Chile, China, Japan, and Australia, and along the Atlantic coastlines of Argentina and South Africa, but despite these wide-ranging territories very little is known about them.
When Bear first started studying sevengill sharks he wanted to know if they were endangered, but was surprised to learn that the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed them as “data deficient.”
“No one had enough data to make a determination on whether they were endangered or not,” he said.
Bear and Lloyd set out to help change that by collecting shark sighting reports and, later, photos taken by scuba divers who encountered sharks while exploring waters off the San Diego coast.
At first they just kept this information on spreadsheets, but in 2013, they started sharing and analyzing these photos through an online platform designed by Wildbook, an organization that uses star pattern recognition technology built by NASA to identify whale sharks, manta rays, and other animals by their spots and other markings.
So far, citizen scientists with Ocean Sanctuaries have collected around 200 photos of sevengills in the San Diego area, as well as numerous videos, and people can visit the nonprofit’s website and Facebook page to see stories and photos of each shark.
More recently, the organization partnered with the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town to collect photos taken of sevengill sharks in False Bay, South Africa. Together, the organizations also offer, opportunities for citizen scientists to collect data about other shark species using Fieldscope, a data collection and online mapping tool.
DIVING WITH SHARKS
Because sharks can be dangerous, Ocean Sanctuaries doesn’t recruit citizen scientists to do research for them, but instead invites divers who have encountered a shark and have taken a photo to submit it as data.
“We don’t want any citizen scientists to endanger themselves to collect data for our project,” Bear said. “Safety is number one.”
Poon, a dive master and underwater photographer, was one of the divers who responded to Ocean Sanctuaries’ invitation.
“I usually post photographs on the San Diego County Dive Reports and Power Scuba pages on Facebook to let other divers know it’s time to go see the sevengills,” Poon said.
Seeing her posts, Bear asked if she would submit her photos as data.
“I have a science background and am a huge fan of crowdsourcing, so of course I jumped on board immediately,” she said. “Taking a few minutes to enter photographs and basic numbers on their website was an easy extension to everything I was already doing.”
Poon said she is especially interested in the analysis the Wildbook platform is beginning to do on the shark data.
“The idea that one day I’ll be able to meet a sevengill shark on a dive and say, ‘Hey, I’ve seen you before!’ or know where they’ve been is really exciting to me,” she said.
Being a citizen scientist with Ocean Sanctuaries has also made Poon a more observant diver, she said.
“Now that I’m involved with the project, I try to make sure I capture clear profile images of each shark I encounter and note their size and whether they’re male or female,” she said. “As you can imagine, they don’t always readily pose for both sides, but the challenge is part of the fun.”
TIDE-POOLING FOR DATA
Poon’s enthusiasm is not unusual in the world of citizen science, and Ocean Sanctuaries is expanding to give more people besides scuba divers the chance to participate in the group’s research.
This year, the organization is developing a new project to engage volunteers in data collection at tide pools using iNaturalist, an app that allows people to take photos of plants and animals, identify species, and record sightings.
“We’ll be providing basic instructions on how to collect data in tide pools using the app and will start an account on iNaturalist to collect the data for our project,” Bear said.
He and Lloyd are particularly interested in collecting data on sea stars to help scientists better understand sea star wasting disease, an illness associated with warming ocean temperatures that is causing mass mortality in starfish populations on the west coast of North America.
The tide pooling citizen science project will be open to all ages and will be especially interesting for kids, Bear said.
MARINE SCIENCE FOR KIDS
In addition to the tide-pooling project, Ocean Sanctuaries is also developing partnerships with schools to get kids excited about sharks and ocean conservation.
Teachers at a local elementary school recently connected with the organization, looking for meaningful service learning projects for their students, said Ocean Sanctuaries co-founder Barbara Lloyd.
“They are very excited to have an opportunity for their kids to be involved in the local shark community,” she said.
Among other things, teachers at the project-based school said that their students would be interested in promoting shark conservation by creating public service announcements about Ocean Sanctuaries’ citizen science projects, educating people about sharks through podcasting, or creating informative posters for the general public, Lloyd said.
Ocean Sanctuaries hopes to pilot the first school partnership this year, with more to come in 2018.
CITIZEN SCIENCE CERTIFICATION
Still another project Ocean Sanctuaries is tackling this year is developing an online citizen science course and certification program for citizen scientists participating in any kind of research.
The certification course will have two phases.
The first will focus on teaching volunteers how to identifying marine life in the waters along the Pacific coast of North America, and will be offered in partnership with REEF.org, a nonprofit that protects marine life worldwide.
The second phase will teach volunteers basic science protocols that are used across disciplines, such as how to make observations in the field, take notes, read maps, and fill in a data sheet. These resources are being designed by an e-learning open source volunteer experienced in designing citizen science curriculum.
Once the certification program is completed, it will be offered to other citizen science organizations to use for free, Bear said.
“There seems to be some kind of awakening in a lot of people about the value of citizen science,” Bear said. “Citizen science is really picking up momentum and we want to help move the field toward standardization of protocols.”
Kristin Butler dedicates her Scuba Series in remembrance of her beloved mother, Marilyn Butler, who passed along to Kristin a deep love for science and nature along with a pair of pink scuba diving fins. Other posts in this series include: Reef Check Underwater Science, From the Stars to the Seas, and The Mystery of Manta Rays.
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