03 May 2012
Sharks, Lasers and Mr Bigglesworth
Filming sharks, testing clips, lasers & research
Agency: What We Do Media || Photographer: Moondog
A month or so ago I was asked by a company in Hong Kong called 'Wicked Lasers' if I would strap a laser to a shark and 'take a few pictures' for them. The obvious reference is to the frequent mentions of 'Sharks with Frigin Laser Beams' as seen in the Austin Powers series.
My first thought was, um... no. There's really no reason to do it and it was obviously just a publicity stunt. However after talking to the companies owner and establishing that he actually has a deep affection for sharks I asked him if we might take a different, perhaps slightly more scientific approach to the suggested stunt. He agreed and the redefined mission was on. I would test a non-invasive attachment method and I'd also send the company footage of his laser in return for funding the research. A pretty fair trade in my books.
Laser Potential - There's actually some real applications here
Recently I've been looking into ways to capture unique images of shark behavior and to establish a protocol for measuring their behavior in relation to various stimuli. We have tons of anecdotal evidence of how a shark may posture or behave, but how do we actually measure that except by looking at tag data or perhaps by a researcher making notes of body posturing etc?
I was quite interested in seeing if we could use a laser to measure actual body contortions and posturing while a shark was in it's final approach to a stimulus source. Is there for example a measurable difference in how it behaves on approach to a splashing human verses a floundering sea mammal, a wounded fish verses a chum box? It's the minutia of shark behavior that often fascinates me and I figured, why not give this a shot?
Benefits to sharks - Less invasive tags
Just for a moment let's get beyond the hype of a laser being attached to a shark. I know I know, it's super fun to talk about but it's mostly an afterthought to the protocols I was testing. Traditionally in science we accept that drilling tags into sharks dorsal fins is the most effective attachment process for super expensive and informative electronic tags. I've always been a little uneasy with the practice though as it can cause a large amount of stress to the captured animal and can even itself cause long-term damage to the dorsal fin.
I'm not saying that the data isn't worth it or that the methodology is flawed, but I do like the idea of exploring less invasive ways in which to attach scientific packages to sharks (and even other marine animals).
I'm pleased that the experiment is getting so much attention and that we've demonstrated a secure, and temporary attachment protocol. It definitely warrants further research and work... but probably minus the lasers from now on.
Benefits to Humans - Do lasers repel sharks?
One of the applications suggested by Wicked Lasers for using lasers underwater was for deterring sharks from an area. They make models of lasers capable of creating 'laser beam force fields' which in theory may be used to keep sharks out of an area. It's actually a theory being used to sell lasers over the internet and I thought it was worth testing. If it turned out to be true imagine if we could virtually net off a swimming area without causing harm to the sharks.
Unfortunately I was unable to determine if this is realistic or not. In fact if pressed I'd say, no, it doesn't work. To test the lasers I used one of their handheld models of lasers and knelt on the seabed, shining the lasers in a lateral direction to where the sharks where swimming. The idea was to simulate a similar installation where the laser would act as a 'fence' (of course for this experiment the laser was not mounted on a shark). Time and again the shark simply swam through the beam. I will say though that I can't absolutely rule out the theory as:
- I was unwilling to shine the laser directly in the sharks' eyes and was careful to turn it off as soon as their snouts crossed the beam. This is totally possible with slow moving sharks like lemons. There may be an arguement to say that the sharks would avoid the lasers if shone in their eyes but when used as a 'fence' this would likely only cause the shark to swim quicker across the barrier (sharks can't swim backwards) therfore making the fence pretty useless
- I actually found that the sharks were attracted to the laser! Viewed from an angle the laser is a bright point of green light and time and again the sharks seemed to swim over to me when they caught sight of it.
Although I'm totally willing to be proved wrong with these notes in hand I decided the 'forcefield' theory doesn't seem practical or realistic.
In the end I'm pleased to say that:
- The clip worked great! It proved to be a stable and reliable temporary attachment device and we'll use it again with different, less expendable, payloads.
- The laser theory actually turns out to have some promise. It's early days yet and that's all I have to say about it for now.
- The shark was unfazed and the clip was retrieved after about 15 minutes of monitoring and filming.
- The campaign is a great success for Wicked Lasers and they contributed to some valuable research
Agency: What We Do Media || Photographer: Moondog
"Mr Bigglesworth, the coolest shark on the planet"
It's obvious now that the results of the shoot have hit the media in full force and it's interesting to watch peoples reaction to Mr Bigglesworth. It's also encouraging that the shots have incited debate (both scientific and whatever it is that user 'Starflower32' was on about ;), and I really don't mind that.
The following are answers to questions asked by Wired Magazine and several other media outlets. I thought it would be worthwhile attaching them somewhere as print media sometimes chooses to be selective in the way in which they attribute context and comments, below is the raw information the interviews were drawn from.
I will leave you with one thought though...
When was the last time you heard major media outlets say that sharks were cool? For readers of this recent string of press I think it was, well... yesterday :)
Media Q & A
Who should be given credit for the shark diving team?
The experiment was conducted by Marine Biologist Luke Tipple and filmed by What We Do Media's dive team. We were on site in cooperation with SharkDiver.com and Blue Iguana Charters. Credit must also go to Wicked Lasers for finally giving us a reason to carry out the "Dr Evil experiments" we've been talking about doing for years! Seriously though, the laser was really an afterthought to the attachment method and WL helped out my research by funding the trip so that was pretty cool.
Have you ever strapped a laser on a live shark before? Did you feel this project was feasible before you did it.
No, my services have never been engaged by Doctor Evil, nor any other infamous villains! This was definitely a world first. Initially I rejected the idea as I thought it was simply just a stunt and, while it was very cool and Austin Powersy, I was only interested if we could find a real world or scientific application for the technology. As it turned out I found a couple of promising research applications for the laser and it gave me an opportunity to test the clip that we have developed for temporarily attaching instruments or electronic devices to sharks.
Which species of shark, specifically, or was it just the first shark you found swimming by?
The shark that we worked with was an adult male Lemon Shark (Negaprion brevirostris), approximately 7 feet in length. This species was selected due to it's predictable and relatively docile swimming behavior during the day, ease of access in shallow water and size of the dorsal fin.
When and where exactly was it attached?
The experiment took place in the Bahamas on the 24th of April 2012. The laser was attached using a non invasive clip which is manually placed by a diver to ensure correct positioning. The clip has specially designed gel pads on the inside of the jaws which create a tactile surface interaction with the dermal denticles of the sharks skin, basically it doesn't move. To correctly position the laser the clip was engaged vertically on the sharks dorsal fin in such a manner that the least possible disruption to laminar flow (drag) around the dorsal fin was experienced.
Are there any useful real-world applications for sharks to have frickin lasers attached to their heads?
Absolutely. There are a few applications, albeit short-term, in which lasers attached to sharks may have experimental benefits. For example, measuring a sharks velocity and trajectory in a real time fashion can be achieved in a number of ways but immediate data is challenging to retrieve. One implementation we have worked on for the laser tracking is to measure these two variables in relation to observed behavior. It's early days yet but I believe it may be a useful tool in the future.
There is also anecdotal evidence to show that sharks may avoid laser energy of certain spectrum and wavelengths. While this would not call for the lasers to be attached to the sharks it is something we were investigating alongside this particular experiment. Although further testing is necessary I can tell you that from my observations the opposite may be true as sharks were time and again actually attracted to the laser beam!
How long will the laser stay attached to the shark?
In theory the clip has the ability to stay in position indefinitely, however in practice (and in our deployment) this is not the case. Zinc elements of the spring device within the clip are designed to corrode and would lessen the grip of the clip within a week. In around a month the spring would be rendered useless, causing the clip to simply fall off.
Did this project pose any risks or discomfort to the host shark?
No, you can see in the video that the shark didn't really like it when I initially deployed the clip, but after a few seconds it returned to normal behavior. The clip itself is not strong enough to cause any pain, and the dorsal fin is actually not very sensitive due to it being composed primarily of cartilage. We frequently use much more invasive methods of attaching tags to sharks, in this case it was simply reacting to me being to close and to my touch.
Can the laser hurt any other sea creatures?
This is an interesting question and one of the first I asked of Wicked Lasers. The answer is yes, they produce lasers that are so powerful that I would not be comfortable exposing sharks (or any other animals) to the potentially damaging effects of the laser beam... not to mention that myself and my divers may also be placed at risk! However Wicked Lasers supplied us with a laser which is on the low end of their potential energy output and safe to work with. No animals (or divers) were put at any risk during this experiment.
Sharks are already dangerous creatures -- so when armed with lasers, how much MORE dangerous do they become?
To clarify the assumption in the question, sharks as a whole are not all that dangerous. Certain species occasionally have negative interactions with humans, but their overall threat to us is greatly over-exaggerated, even in the case of the 'more dangerous' species. In this case I was working with a Lemon Shark which has been responsible for a few attacks but of the 22 known lemon shark attacks since 1580, none have resulted in death. The laser we were using was not strong enough to cause ocular or thermal damage to other sea life so, while it may look super threatening, the shark was still not very dangerous.