Revealing Whales, Repelling Sharks
MR. SAM LITZINGER
From WAMU 88.5 and American University in Washington, it's "The Animal House," connecting you with everything that concerns the animal world. I'm Sam Litzinger. Later, an award-winning documentarian gives us a preview of his new film, "Rich Details: The Crisis in America's Animal Shelters," we'll meet a chemist who says he's found a substance that can repel some of the most fearsome predators in the ocean, and Dr. Gary Weitzman joins us later to answer questions about animals near and far.
MR. SAM LITZINGER
First, if you're planning a whale-watching trip this spring or this summer there's a new piece of technology that could help you in the search for the elusive mega mammal. Marine biologist Jake Levenson joins us now with the details. Jake, glad to you have you with us in "The Animal House."
MR. JAKE LEVENSON
Thanks for having me.
So tell us about the technology here.
Well, there are a few things that are happening. We have this app called Whale Alert. And what that is is the culmination of probably 10 or 15 years of work to help reduce the threat of ship strikes on right whales. And what Whale Alert does is it's an application that includes an electronic chart that shows your position relative to where there are whale areas that you should be aware of. Because there are rules about slowing down and areas to be avoided and other measures that a prudent mariner would need to know, that information is conveyed in this app.
There's no really other way to get it in real time compared to your position. The app will warn you when you're entering into an area where you need to slow down, where whales tend to aggregate, but also through buoys that have underwater microphones on them, we're able to listen for whales. And that information pops up on the app, too, regardless of what the season is. By listening to them you're able to detect where they are. So in Massachusetts, we have a series of 10 buoys that go into the shipping lanes that ships take in and out of Boston Harbor.
Just like, you know, street signs might warn you of deer crossing, these buoys can warn of whales in the area. The buoy changes color and a warning pops up on the app.
What's the cost of the technology and is it in use widely now or do you hope it will be soon?
I do hope it will be soon. And I'm working on applications in other parts of the world, as well. The cost of the app is free. Anybody with an iPad or an iPhone can download it.
Could this technology be used for whale hunting?
Yeah, that did occur to me, too. And that did sort of keep me up at night a couple times. Really, what this doesn’t do is give you the specific location of a whale. It tells you the whale's in a general area, within five miles, which is the width of the shipping lanes in Boston. And also it tells you that they were there within 24 hours. What it doesn't do is pinpoint a whale for you and tell you exactly where it is or how many are there or anything like that. But it's for boaters, primarily, so that if you're in the shipping lane it covers that area.
Yeah, it sounds like you're doing a lot more good than any potential harm on something.
I hope so. I hope so.
Marine biologist Jake Levenson talking about Whale Alert. Jake, thank you very much for being with us in "The Animal House."
Hey, my pleasure.
An American chemist says he's found a substance -- several in fact -- that can repel some of the most fearsome predators in the ocean. And he wants to use his discovery to protect them. Reporter Ari Daniel Shapiro of PRI's "The World" and partner program NOVA takes us to the Bahamian island of North Bimini for details.
MR. ARI DANIEL SHAPIRO
The wind's picking up on the island of North Bimini. Eric Stroud has tied his hair back in a ponytail to keep it from getting in his way. He's standing on a pier looking down at the turquoise water.
MR. ERIC STROUD
As you see, the current is ripping through here right now. The tide is going out. So any scent that's put here goes right to the outside of the channel and that's where pretty much the big sharks are right now.
Stroud's setting up an experiment. He unwraps 20 pounds of frozen sardines.
It's pretty yummy.
Drops them into a mesh bag tied to the pier and tosses the bag into the water. He's hoping to attract a large bull shark.
It's a fairly dangerous shark. It can be aggressive, especially when provoked or cornered.
If a bull shark does show up, he'll throw a large-baited hook into the water. But it's not your typical fishhook.
We're just looking to see, will he flinch?
If all goes well, this hook won't catch any sharks. You see, Stroud develops shark repellents. It's been a passion of his for more than a decade. Back at the Bimini Biological Field Station where he's come to study sharks, Stroud explains what led to this unusual career choice. He used to work full time as a chemist in the pharmaceutical industry. Then, in the summer of 2001 he and his wife went on a cruise to Bermuda.
We hit bad weather and we were trapped in a cabin. And on the news was shark bite after shark bite. It seemed like everyone that stepped in the ocean in Florida was getting attacked by a shark that summer.
That's when his wife suggested he turn his talents to developing shark repellents. When they got home to New Jersey, he set up several kiddie pools in his basement and he filled them with small sharks.
Your wife was cool with having all these sharks in the basement?
I'm not sure if she was cool with it or if, you know, that's just love. (laugh)
He watched how the sharks fed, swam and behaved. Then one day Stroud accidentally dropped a large magnet from his workbench.
And some little nurse sharks darted. That night we put magnets into the tank and couldn't believe the nurse sharks were just extremely distressed and stayed away from them.
What Stroud discovered was that magnets repel sharks. In the Bahamas, Stroud set up a demonstration for me.
So we are in a pen full of sharks right now.
We're standing waist deep, just off shore, in a fenced-in patch of the sea. Several young lemon sharks cruise the perimeter. Stroud's assistant captures one of the sharks and slowly rotates it onto its back underwater, which puts it into a sleeplike state. Then Stroud takes a magnet and spins it as he moves it toward the shark. It responds immediately.
There we go. Look at that beautiful bend away from the magnet, just like it's repelled by it, like it's another magnet.
Yep, yeah, he's turning. Just arcs his whole body.
Sharks have electrical sensors. They look like tiny freckles on their snouts. Biologists believe sharks use these sensors to detect the heartbeats of their prey and to navigate using the Earth's magnetic field. Stroud suspects the spinning magnet overwhelms those electrical sensors.
It's probably something like a bright flashlight across your eyes. And it's just temporarily blinding and you're startled. And it's not pleasant.
Stroud made his discovery in 2004. It helped him jumpstart a company he'd founded called SharkDefense that aims to develop and commercialize shark repellents. He and his team tested other substances and found some non-magnetic metals also interfere with a shark's electrical sensors.
Certain metals didn't work, others did. You begin to hone down the periodic table. You're like, wait a minute, all the effect is the rare Earth elements.
Rare Earth metals like samarium, neodymium and praseodymium. Stroud's original plan was to develop repellents to protect people and he's working on ways to do that. For instance, he and his partners are researching a magnetized underwater fence that might keep sharks away from swimmers. But his main focus has switched to using repellents to protect sharks. Many shark species are being over-fished, some are endangered and one reason is that fisherman trying to catch other fish often catch sharks by accident.
Stroud wondered, what if he could produce fishhooks that catch fish like tuna and halibut as usual, but that sharks steer clear of.
We realized we could magnetize the fishing hook and we can coat it with a rare Earth metal. And it looks just like a regular hook and we get the benefit of two repellents at the hook.
Several countries are now testing his so-called smart hooks to see if they work. Some tests show a 60 to 70 percent reduction in the number of sharks caught. Stroud's received an award from the World Wildlife Fund for his invention and he's hoping to sell the product commercially before long. In the meantime, Stroud continues to refine the design, trying new combinations of metals and magnets and observing how they affect different types of sharks, which is why he's on this pier on North Bimini Island, chumming the waters for a large bull shark.
He wants to test a magnetized fishhook wrapped in a magnesium foil. A couple of eagle rays and barracudas swim by, but there's no sign of a bull shark, so his hook sits on the pier.
Sometimes nothing happens quickly in shark repellent research.
Stroud waits for more than an hour. Then he pulls the bait bag in and dumps the sardines onto the pier. He calls it a day.
So we have to try again.
Eight years after the chance discovery in his New Jersey basement, Stroud's come to accept that product development is a slow process, but his attraction to repellents runs deep and he says the sharks keep luring him back. For NOVA and "The World," I'm Ari Daniel Shapiro, Bimini, Bahamas.
In a few moments, Dr. Gary Weitzman will join us with answers to your questions about pets. First, let's learn about our animal of the day, the shark. There are over 400 species of the sea creature. Most live 20 to 30 years. There is one member of the shark family that has a life span of 100 years. Can you identify this animal? We'll have the answer just before the end of today's program. Next week in "The Animal House," a revolutionary connection between human and non-human medicine.
Animals in the wild get cancer. They have genetic abnormalities, congenital problems, birth defects. I mean, any infection that can happen to us can happen to animals, but physicians and veterinarians rarely talk to each other. And there's so much we could learn on the human side and on the animal side by connecting fields.
What animals can teach us about human health, next week in "The Animal House."
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