Using Underwater Robots To Search For Great White Sharks

Source: National Geographic/Madeleine Foote

Photo: Elias Levy/Wikimedia Commons

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A large slick of blood bloomed on the ocean’s surface, just off the southern coast of California’s Farallon Islands. Marine biologist David McGuire pointed to little yellow beads of fat amid the swirling crimson, “It’s a seal.” The likely killer was one of several dozen great white sharks known to frequently hunt the island’s waters—perhaps one of the Sisters, a trio of massive, 17-foot females that continue to return to the islands, or Tom Johnson, the oldest-known great white shark, first spotted in the Farallones in 1987.

Baiting, or chumming, is forbidden here, so observing a great white’s natural behavior on a kill at the surface requires quite a bit of luck—and diving to get closer to the ravenous sharks carries serious risks.

But on this day, McGuire and entrepreneur David Lang, both National Geographic Explorers, were optimistic they would get a close-up view of the elusive apex predators from the safety of the boat. As the captain idled the engines, Lang leaned over the side and placed a sleek, white remotely operated vehicle, or ROV, not much larger than a laptop right into the midst of the bloody water. He fed out a section of its 328-foot cable, which connected it to its pilot and a video screen. The little robot’s propellers buzzed and burbled, and the device disappeared into the gory murk.

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Photo: Elias Levy/Wikimedia Commons

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