A boom in drone photography has helped shed new light on the murky ocean, and closer-than-you-think encounters between humans and sharks.
Joanna Steidle, 50, grinned as she launched her drone over the Atlantic Ocean on a hazy July morning. She was on the lookout – for sharks.
A native of Southampton, New York, Ms Steidle grew up going to the beach, longing to learn more about what lived beneath the surface. Everything changed when she picked up a drone in 2015.
Since then, she has filmed humpback whales emerging from the deep to engulf prey in their giant maws, and a fleet of ghostly rays swimming in formation with the aid of a drone that can soar as high as 400 feet, or hover over the surface of the water. The astonishing images have even caught the eye of National Geographic.
The sharks, she said, are the most exciting. Several of her videos show these formidable predators hunting schools of fish like a pack of aquatic wolves.
“The way they move and the way they interact with the species around them is fascinating,” she said. “It’s like they’re sharing a big buffet.”
In recent years, amateurs, photographers, some scientists, and even law enforcement have embraced drones as a way to study and track sharks, giving us an unprecedented view of one of the world’s most infamous but least understood predators.
The technology has resulted in stunning aerial images – great white sharks tearing at a humpback whale carcass, or floating peacefully just feet away from surfers. But drones are also exposing our unease with sharing the waters, and have sparked a debate about how the devices can best be used to protect the safety of beachgoers as encounters with the creatures increase.
A new normal
Roughly a dozen species of sharks swim off the coast of New York’s Long Island, including sand tiger sharks, dusky sharks, sandbar sharks, while juvenile great white sharks have also been spotted in these waters.
Humans are not on the menu. But this summer, some sharks are coming too close for comfort.
The water around Long Island has warmed due to climate change, becoming more hospitable to sharks. New laws have protected the sharks’ primary food source – bunker fish – by banning harmful fishing practices.
This means more sharks are heading closer to the shoreline to hunt the now plentiful bunker fish, with the potential to mistakenly nibble on humans getting in their way.
Shark bites are incredibly rare. According to the International Shark Attack File, New York state had only 8 unprovoked bites in 2022 and none were fatal.
But at least four shark encounters occurred on Long Island over the recent 4 July weekend. In one instance, 15-year-old surfer Peter Banculli suffered a suspected shark bite near Fire Island. (He assured a Long Island news station he would soon be ready to “start shredding again”.)
As a result, Governor Kathy Hochul is sending drones to municipality officials to spot sharks near shore and order swimmers out of the water if needed.
But some experts said the technology is not particularly effective for monitoring sharks, as it only captures the fish during a limited part of their movements, when they swim close to the surface.
Drone footage also has the potential to spark fears about a species humans have been swimming alongside for years, according to Frank Quevedo, the executive director of the South Fork Natural History Museum (SOFO) in Long Island.
“Everybody that’s seeing a shark now is documenting it and can blast it onto the internet on social media and millions of people can see it,” he said. “So people demonise sharks saying, ‘Oh, they’re in our waters, they’re going to kill people.'”
A least once this summer, a drone has sparked unnecessary worries on the shoreline.
Earlier this month, one drone operator, who mistook a school of large fish for a swarm of 50 sharks, caused a closure at Robert Moses State Beach.
“It caused a panic,” Mr Quevedo said.
A boom in drone photography
Sharks still loom large in the public imagination as deadly man-eaters, thanks to the 1975 blockbuster Jaws, in which a great white shark menaced swimmers off the coast of Massachusetts.
It has taken decades of research and education to try to shift the public perception of sharks and stop the debilitating hunting of great white sharks in particular, Mr Quevedo said.
Some amateur drone enthusiasts believe that by capturing images of sharks peacefully coexisting alongside us, they can help dispel myths. .
Carlos Guana, who takes drone videos of California’s Malibu coastline as a hobby, has captured numerous images of juvenile great white sharks floating just feet from surfers – and leaving them alone.
He posts the videos on his YouTube channel, The Malibu Artist, in the hopes of showing viewers a different perspective.
“You have this perception of sharks that they’re going to be aggressive and they’re just this hungry monster all the time,” Mr Guana told the BBC.
“It’s a full 180 degrees when you see the sharks in the wild,” he said. “They’re just chillin'”.
Jon Dodd, founder of Atlantic Shark Institute, believes drones have become a useful tool for researching the animals. “They don’t alter the movements of these sharks, so you can really study what they’re doing in a natural environment,” he said.
Almost 3,000 miles away in the Hamptons, Mr Quevedo and his colleagues have used drones to document their conservation efforts, which involve tagging sharks and collecting data such as their size, sex and oxygen levels.
Rather than use footage of sharks to scare people from the water, Mr Quevedo said officials should focus on educating swimmers about how their sharp-toothed neighbours operate.
On a sunny day this week, residents at Cooper’s Beach in the Hamptons had already seen police flying drones overhead.
Southampton resident Suzanne Moore said they made her feel safer. “They’re monitoring and then they let all the other people know,” said the 69-year-old who was sunning with her friends.
“If the police spot them with drones, they won’t let anyone in,” her friend, 70-year-old Jen Cerrato, chimed in.
The beachgoers said the increased drone surveillance did not make them more afraid of sharks.
Ms Steidle, the amateur shark photographer, criticised drone tactics that stigmatise sharks.
She told the BBC that she filmed the animals quite close to the Hamptons shore. In one video, her drone spotted 13 sharks, including a juvenile great white shark, swimming mere hundreds of feet from the beach. She had never seen one attack a human.
The technology has instead helped her uncover the enormity of the Atlantic Ocean, and the beauty of the sharks and other marine creatures who call it home.
“We’re not alone here,” she said. “We share the space.”
Seeing sharks through her drone’s eye “reminds me of my smallness,” she added. “I’m just this tiny little speck, on this huge planet.”
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