The DroneSharkApp, described as an “amateur enthusiast platform” created by Jason Iggleden, films marine life year-round in waters off Sydney. Over 487,000 TikTok followers and 144,000 Instagram followers routinely watch videos of sharks, whales, rays, fur seals, dolphins and fish.
According to the app’s website, users can receive real-time updates regarding beach conditions, sunrises, sharks getting too close to beachgoers, local marine wildlife in the proximity, water clarity for divers and swimmers, fish schools for fishermen, and waves for swimming or surfing.
Three researchers—Vanessa Pirotta, David Hocking and Robert Harcourt—recently utilized 678 wildlife videos posted on Instagram and assessed from 432 days of observation, all of which were collected by Iggleden. Findings were used to publish a paper, “Drone Observations of Marine Life and Human-Wildlife Interactions off Sydney, Australia,” in the Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute on March 11.
“Given the extensive effort and multiple recordings of the presence, behavior and interactions of various species with humans provided by DroneSharkApp, we explored its utility for providing biologically meaningful observations of marine wildlife,” researchers said.
Pirotta, a wildlife scientist at Macquarie University in Australia, wrote Newsweek saying she first spoke with Iggleden a few years ago about whales. That was when she and her co-authors saw the potential of the drone footage in relation to scientific data.
“Our intention was to use the available information already provided to the general public, i.e. via Instagram, and to see what information this may be able to provide the science world,” Pirotta said. “In other words, we assessed DroneSharkApp’s Instagram content [videos]to see if we could provide biological meaningful observations of marine life. As we report, it did.”
Data also helped counter whatever perceptions exist in society, she added, such as the reputation sharks have had globally since the movie Jaws was first released in 1975.
Drone video footage of 94 total feeding behaviors or events included 58 involving fur seals, 33 involving dolphins, two with white sharks and one of a humpback whale. The app has documented 101 interactions between humans and sharks, “demonstrating the frequent, mainly innocuous human–shark overlap off some of Australia’s busiest beaches.”
The app also provided researchers with multiple observations of humpback and dwarf minke whales with calves traveling north, which experts said indicated calving occurring “well south” of traditional northern Queensland breeding waters.
Gray nurse sharks were most commonly observed in close proximity to humans, according to the study, though they are not widely regarded as a threat to humans. White sharks, which are more dangerous, were only observed three times in a three-year period and just one of those observations involved a shark-and-human encounter within the same frame of video footage.
“This confirms that the likelihood of encountering larger, typically offshore species e.g., white sharks in this region is relatively low and is consistent with the locally low number of shark bites and few animals caught in the shark meshing program which fishes in this area,” the study noted.
Iggleden’s TikTok video informing followers of the research paper has been viewed 5.3 million times. It includes various clips highlighting different sea creatures, including a shark he nicknamed Norman that is identified by a swimmer who frantically swings her arms to vacate the scene.
“I’m feeling so proud that all my hard work has been acknowledged in the world of science,” Iggleden said in the video’s caption.
The Sydney Morning Herald reported that he has been using his drone to collect footage seven days a week for four years “with barely a day off.” He said he has likely spotted hundreds of gray nurse sharks in thousands of hours of footage, bestowing them with names like Norman and others.
But he told the publication there was a greater meaning behind his intent.
“The bigger picture was, I wanted to help people,” he said. “I wanted to create something like a good show … but then talk about emotions and all this stuff, like, help people through life.”
His videos are not lost on any of his viewers.
“This really puts into perspective how big the ocean/this world is, and we’re just a small piece of it,” one TikToker commented on his video.
“The Aussie commentary makes it even better,” another user said.
As noted in the paper, drones have offered unique accessibility to both researchers and spectators that extend to a new sense of awareness. It is also admitted that the app’s endeavor “never intended to be used for science” and that several limitations exist without scientists’ input. Without formal guidance from scientists, this work faces several limitations.
Pirotta said that drone technology is enabling scientists to learn more about marine life in the ocean.
“Citizen science and scientists can collaboratively work together to interpret observations of marine life to increase our biological understanding of marine wildlife data,” she said. “Sharks are part of the natural marine ecosystems and like other animals serve important ecological roles.”
Harcourt, part of the Society for Conservation Biology’s Conservation Technology Committee at Macquarie University, wrote Newsweek that drones are transforming the capabilities of conservation research as they provide a new eye-in-the-sky perspective.
“Because of the immense reach of social media, Big Data harvesting can provide observations of rare but important behavior, such as interspecific interactions or changes in range distribution that are unlikely to be detected in any other way,” Harcourt said.
It is critical as it relates to conservation planning, he said, such as spotting unusual species in areas where they’ve never been seen before. Or, observing sharks and dolphins feeding cooperatively.
“This paper is literally a showcase of some of the diversity of marine wildlife interactions of a major coastal city, and the paper points to ways we can systematize and standardize future collaborations,” he said.
Future scientific collaborations may involve animal ethics approval and scientific licenses, in addition to training and further inclusion of citizen scientists for publication protocol.
“Furthermore, the exploration of social attitudes toward marine life through social media platforms, such as Instagram, may improve our understanding of follower interactions with different species and contribute to the growing area of ‘marine citizen science,'” the study said. “This may further aid awareness toward beach safety and our understanding of marine life off the coast of Sydney.”
Newsweek reached out to Iggleden for comment.