© Dawn Watson

Research Project

White shark tracking

Role: Researcher

We put tags on sharks. We then follow them around the ocean. In any other scenario, this behaviour would seem creepy.

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We (in the ‘collective human race’ sense, not just me and a few mates) frankly, know bugger all about great white sharks.

While we stand to learn a lot about their behaviour and general nature during the time we spend in their company, it’s what they get up when we can’t see them that’s most intriguing.

Enter tracking.

In short, this process involves attaching a small device called a tag (sorry, there’s no way I can write that and not sound patronising) which emits a ping, to the shark. A boat comprising a small team of people equipped with a receiver (a piece of hardware which records data from this tag, such as depth, temp etc, GPS), then follow said ping from such a distance that they don’t affect the shark’s routine.

This provides an incredible wealth of information which tell us how sharks behave at certain times, during certain seasons at certain areas, which we can then compare to tracking data from other areas. This helps us understand various aspects of shark behaviour, such as how they adapt their hunting strategies to the unique properties of a particular region.

My role

I’m one of three people (yay, ‘special’ in the good sense, for once) who has tracked white sharks in Mossel Bay and Gansbaai (South Africa), each in contribution to datasets used in a number of PhD and Masters studies.

My role has always been in a technical capacity, moreso than an academic/analytical one: getting equipment ready, training students, collecting data, skippering the boat as and when required.

When you spend days and nights at sea tracking a particular animal, on shifts lasting anything up to eight or twelve hours you find yourself really getting into their heads, naturally second guessing their behavior as both you and they settle into seemingly (but not always) predictable patterns.

Strangely, my experience drumming actually helped immensely with this. The ping sound emitted by the tags we use sounds extremely, horrifically similar to the click-track I record drums to.

The major difference being that the ping isn’t at a ridiculous bpm or requiring some utterly ludicrous beat to be played along to it… mercifully.

Anyhow, I love tracking. You spend hours at sea just following one of the most ancient, refined predators on the entire planet, sharing in their day to day life while not affecting it.


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