(TNS) — A new, high-tech sonar shark-detecting system has been installed on the Balboa Pier in Newport Beach.
The two-month pilot project is expected to go live the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 10, and will begin sending real-time alerts to lifeguards when sharks enter an “invisible net” area close to shore.
Originally created in Australia and the first of its kind in the United States, the “Clever Buoy” is intended to help lifeguards keep swimmers safe amid the surge in shark populations off the Southern California coast.
As sharks populations increase off the Southern California coastline and beyond due to decades-old fishing restrictions and protections, lifeguards and ocean users are trying to figure out how to co-exist with them.
Areas of “hot spots” with juvenile sharks close to shore have been tracked in the South Bay, Long Beach, Huntington Beach, San Clemente and Dana Point in recent years.
“I fully understand the success in the recovery of the species that the scientists are talking about,” said Ian Cairns, a former pro surfer who has pushed to bring the system to local waters. “However, the impact on the people who are beach users, it’s really scary.”
Cairns, originally from Western Australia, remembers the carefree days surfing the remote areas of his hometown breaks.
But beach life has changed in that part of the world, as several fatal shark attacks in the past decade have rattled ocean-lovers.
“I have a really major concern that in Southern California, we’re approaching the kind of circumstance we have in Western Australia where I grew up,” Cairns, who now lives in Laguna Beach, said. “Everyone in the ocean – boogie-boarders, divers, surfers and swimmers — we’re all at risk of being attacked by great white sharks that weren’t there before.”
Cairns connected with Craig Anderson, founder of “Clever Buoy.” Anderson had tested out the system at several locations throughout Australia and South Africa, as well at some professional surf contests.
The system uses a software that sets up a “virtual net.” When any large animal comes into that area – about 300 yards off the pier – the system locks onto that creature and quickly analyzes it, Anderson explained.
Clever Buoy – created by the company Smart Marine Systems – uses recognition software to identify sharks by shape and side-to-side movement.
“Sharks have a unique swim pattern in comparison to other animals in the sea, so we can differentiate them pretty quickly,” he said.
If a shark is detected, an automatic alert is sent via text or mobile app to lifeguards. They can then warn beachgoers of the creatures’s location, whether it’s behaving erratically, and in which direction it’s heading.
The system has acoustic-tag receivers, as well as sonar, so it picks up the presence of all of the sharks that enter the designated area, called the “safe zone.”
Current tracking systems only download data from tagged sharks, and downloading the information can be costly and is not done in real time.
Anderson said the frequency of the sonar has been “academically and scientifically verified,” and approved by the California Coastal Commission.
“It has been critiqued all over the world, we’ve had no issues at all,” he said.
The hope is that the pilot project will show how similar systems can be used around the world, especially in areas that are seeing a similar influx of shark activity, Anderson said.
The installation comes just as a shark killed a bodyboarder off Cape Code a few weeks ago. A teenage diver was bit off San Diego on Sept. 29.
Anderson has seen first-hand the impacts sharkier waters can have on tourism areas.
“We’re an Australian company, we’ve experienced a significant level of fatalities over the last decade; it’s had a massive impact on tourism, business and even our lifestyle. People just don’t enjoy the water like they used to,” he said.
He also believes Southern California is in the infancy stages of what they are experiencing in Western Australia a decade ago. There have been two near-fatal attacks near Orange County, both swimmers, in the past two years.
“Once those animals get older and bigger, it ends up resulting in fatalities. It’s the same pattern we see unfolding here,” Anderson said. “There’s a lot more people here and water uses than we have in our remote part of Australia.”
Workers on the boat, Ever Ready, and a smaller boat alongside, and under the water install cables that run from sonar equipment on the ocean floor to the Balboa Pier in Newport Beach, that will detect sharks off the coast, on Thursday, September 27, 2018. The system used in areas of Australia, has never been used off US waters before and is being installed as a pilot program. The readings may help lifeguards figure out ways to make real-time decisions on shark activity off the coast. (Photo by Mark Rightmire, Orange County Register/SCNG)
For Cairns, he’s not so worried about himself in the ocean – but fears for his children.
“The (juvenile sharks) grow up and inadvertently mistake us for food and they bite us,” he said. “I don’t think they have any intention of eating humans, but those accidental attacks — you’re lucky if you live.”
He hopes one day the Clever Buoy will be in place in popular destinations like Huntington Beach Pier.
“Other areas, you make a calculated risk – and I know surfers will do that because we’ve done it our entire lives,” he said. “I just want a sense of security at these high-population centers.”
The Clever Buoy is just one of several tools being tested to find out more about sharks and their patterns.
Shark Lab director Chris Lowe has recently been studying “e-DNA” that tests salt water to show if sharks are nearby.
Earlier this year, the state passed $3.75 million in funding to help shark research and safety programs.
“At this point in time, it’s just another tool,” said Newport Beach lifeguard Chief Brent Jacobsen. “This will just be another technological helper.”
Jacobsen said there’s still a lot of unknowns with the system, which will be another layer of information – in addition to drones, helicopters and observations from lifeguards, surfers and beachgoers – to help them make educated decisions.
“It’s unproven to us, so we’re just kind of standing back and taking a peek at it,” he said.
The project launch is happening at the Balboa Pier at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, Oct. 10.
For more information, visit sharkmitigation.com
©2018 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.