Ocean Sanctuaries: Citizen scientists sought for projects in San Diego

Experienced divers and casual ocean-goers alike are needed to assist the newly formed Ocean Sanctuaries marine research group conduct its research projects. Founded last year by La Jolla resident Michael Bear and Barbara Lloyd of Mira Mesa, Ocean Sanctuaries has three programs that depend on citizen scientists.

Each of its projects involves contributing to a scientific database to create a baseline of what species are found in San Diego waters. “Due to recent changes in climate and ocean conditions, scientists need baseline studies more and more,” Bear said. “These provide a snapshot in time of what species were in a particular location at a particular time of year, so later, researchers can go back and reference that data.”

He added the emphasis is on lay workers because “scientists would traditionally use graduate students to collect data, but quickly discovered there aren’t enough of them to do all this work. With the advent of citizen science, the general public can participate in the collection of data.”

Lloyd added, “Ocean Sanctuaries empowers volunteers to collect data using photography and videography, and put it in database programs that can be accessed by researchers.”

Here’s the deal

The three projects in the works are the Yukon marine Life Survey, Sevengill Shark ID Project, and testing the FieldScope data collection tool of National Geographic.

Perhaps the most user-friendly, FieldScope is an experimental collection tool that can be used for any species, but Ocean Sciences will be using it to record the number of sharks (with the exception of Sevengill Sharks, as those are the focus of the Sevengill Shark ID Project) found in San Diego for the National Geographic database.

Bear said contributing to FieldScope is open to anyone who sees a shark in San Diego, especially while snorkeling or diving in shallow waters, and snaps a picture. “So let’s say you are out snorkeling at La Jolla Shores and you see a leopard shark, which you can find in three feet of water at certain times of year,” he said. “You take a photo and upload it to FieldScope and note where you were and the time of day, and that’s it.” Although carnivorous, leopard sharks are not harmful to humans unless provoked, and spawn in La Jolla Shores during warm weather months.

A more advanced project, for which only advanced SCUBA divers could participate, is the Yukon Marine Life Survey, a follow up to a study conducted by the San Diego Ocean Foundation in 2004 that examines the HMCS vessel The Yukon, which was sunk by the City of San Diego in 2000 to create an artificial reef. The Yukon, a 366-foot long ship, is located off the coast of Mission Beach.

“The idea behind artificial reefs is they attract marine life,” Bear said. “In 2004, citizen scientists did an initial dive (to catalog the species building a home there)... (Now) we need to see how much marine life has been attracted to the ship since the last study was done.” The survey is being conducted on an ongoing basis.

experienced divers able to reach the 100-foot depth of the Yukon can participate by taking clear photographs using waterproof cameras of the marine life at the artificial reef, and when possible, identify the species. From there, the photos can be uploaded to the Ocean Sanctuaries website so scientists can record the findings.

Lloyd said while a good underwater camera is preferred, she often goes out with a GoPro camera and uploads the data right to her smartphone.

Also for more advanced divers, the Sevengill Shark ID project specifically records the presence of Sevengill Sharks, and tracks whether the sharks are returning to San Diego or new to the area.

Bear explained Sevengill Sharks have a freckling pattern on their sides, which he believes is as unique as a fingerprint. To participate in the identification project, “Local divers will go out, and if they see a Sevengill Shark as it goes by – keeping safety in mind, of course – they can take a lateral photo of it, and, hopefully in the photo, you can see the freckling pattern on the side,” he said.

From there, the photos are uploaded to Ocean Sanctuaries’ website, where Principal Investigators, often graduate students, verify the findings. “We want someone that is a trained scientist oversee the work, so they run the photos through our pattern recognition software to see if the same Sevengills are coming back from year to year (or if they are unique). We’ve already identified 24 individual Sevengills,” Bear said.

He explained that the project started from his personal curiosity. “Between 2000 to 2007, I didn’t hear of too many divers encountering this shark. but in 2008, we started hearing more and more anecdotal stories. I started a website so divers could record when they thought they saw a Sevengill Shark. Since then, a few shark researchers have expressed interest in what we’re doing here. The project snowballed and it went from being a spreadsheet to a fairly sophisticated database that uses (pattern recognition software).”

Going forward, Lloyd said they would like to launch a program focused on tidepools – chiefly La Jolla Cove – for young people to participate. “You can love the ocean but might be afraid or unable to go on extensive dives, but can go to the tidepools. It’s an important zone that reflects ocean health,” she said. “Anything that gets large groups of citizen scientists to gather data could contribute to the scientific endeavors that are going on in our oceans.”