An eye in the sky on sharks

Seal Beach is us­ing a drone to track young great whites along the coast


With his head cov­ered by a beach towel, Seal Beach Marine Safety Lt. Chris Pierce fo­cused on an iPad mounted on a re­mote con­trol con­sole.

On the tablet’s screen was a live video feed of the Pa­cific Ocean sev­eral yards off the coast of Surf­side. A life­guard boat ap­peared on the left side of the screen, along with a gray fig­ure swimming in the wa­ter.

It was a ju­ve­nile great white shark, about 5 feet to 6 feet long, seen in high def­i­ni­tion through the Marine Safety Depart­ment’s new drone.

“We sent the drone about 1,100 feet from where we were, just out­side the surf line,” Pierce said Wed­nes­day. “There was no­body in the area and the shark was swimming around, do­ing shark things.”

Seal Beach has re­ported sev­eral sight­ings of young great white sharks off its coast since late April. Marine Safety Chief Joe Bai­ley said he would send a few life­guards on a boat or per­sonal wa­ter­craft to try to count the sharks, but that proved dif­fi­cult and time­con­sum­ing.

“It’s hard be­ing 5 feet off the wa­ter and look­ing into the wa­ter and search­ing a wide area,” Bai­ley said. “So we came up with the idea to try a drone.”

In May, the depart­ment bought a $1,400 Phan­tom 3 model from drone man­u­fac­turer DJI and has used it at least twice a week to mon­i­tor sharks. Bai­ley, Pierce and Marine Safety Of­fi­cer Nick Bolin have been trained to pi­lot the drone, though the depart­ment is look­ing to train its en­tire staff to use the equip­ment when needed.

The drone has a range of about 1.2 miles and can record about 20 min­utes of video, Pierce said. On Wed­nes­day, Pierce saw five sharks on the drone’s live video feed. On Mon­day, 10 were seen.

“It’s been a great tool to iden­tify if we have sharks in the wa­ter,” Bai­ley said.

Shark ad­vi­sory signs have been posted on the sand at Surf­side since the ini­tial sight­ings, but the depart­ment hasn’t closed the beaches.

The Marine Safety Depart­ment turned to Chris Lowe, a marine bi­ol­ogy pro­fes­sor at Cal State Long Beach, to help safety of­fi­cials iden­tify the breed of the sharks off the coast and to fig­ure out why they were there.

Lowe, di­rec­tor of the univer­sity’s shark lab, has been study­ing sharks for more than 25 years. He said the great whites could be turn­ing up be­cause of the un­sea­son­ably warm wa­ter or the abun­dance of stingrays they can feed on.

“These are the things that we’re try­ing to fig­ure out,” he said.

This month, Lowe and his stu­dents placed track­ing de­vices on six ju­ve­nile great white sharks to fol­low their move­ments. Pre­lim­i­nary re­sults show that the pod has re­mained off Surf­side and the Sunset Beach area of Hunt­ing­ton Beach, and Lowe says the sharks might stay there through the sum­mer and pos­si­bly the win­ter if the wa­ter re­mains warm.

Lowe said the sharks aren’t fo­cused solely on the Surf­side area. In the last nine years, he has seen ju­ve­nile great whites linger around Ven­tura County, Santa Mon­ica Bay and San Onofre State Beach dur­ing the sum­mer.

The sharks typ­i­cally headed to­ward warmer wa­ters off Baja Cal­i­for­nia dur­ing the win­ter, but for the last two years they have re­mained in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia.

“We haven’t had a win­ter for the past few years, so our wa­ter tem­per­a­tures never got that cold,” he said.

Bai­ley said the depart­ment will con­tinue warn­ing beach­go­ers about the sharks but won’t take fur­ther ac­tion if sharks con­tinue not to bother swim­mers and surfers.

“The sharks are be­hav­ing nat­u­rally and nor­mally as the ex­perts think they would,” he said. “They’re cruis­ing around and they’re feed­ing on bot­tom fish.… It’s un­usual to have them in Seal Beach, but their be­hav­ior is not un­usual.”

Surf­side res­i­dent Sonny Reser, 73, an avid kite surfer and diver, said he is fas­ci­nated by the num­ber of sharks off the coast.

“There were a cou­ple that were out here this morn­ing,” he said Wed­nes­day as he watched Pierce fly the drone.

“Some­times you go by them and they’ll take off, but other times they’ll just stop and look at you.”

Reser has lived in Surf­side for more than 20 years, but this is the first time he has seen sharks in the area. He has gone to Cocos Is­land in Costa Rica to dive with sharks, but now he doesn’t have to go far to get a glimpse.

“I don’t mind them, and they don’t bother me or make me ner­vous,” he said. “I just don’t like them be­ing right un­der­neath me when I’m in the wa­ter.” an­tho­­pio Car­pio writes for Times Com­mu­nity News.

An­thony Clark Car­pio Hunt­ing ton Beach In­de­pen­dent

SEAL BEACH Marine Safety Chief Joe Bai­ley, left, and Lt. Chris Pierce pre­pare the depart­ment’s DJI Phan­tom 3 drone for f light. “It’s been a great tool to iden­tify if we have sharks in the wa­ter,” Bai­ley says.

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