Glen Paul: G’day, and welcome to CSIROPod. I’m Glen Paul. We know the world’s oceans are being impacted upon by climate change, and despite the fact that our survival is directly linked to stable oceanic life, information from below the sea’s surface remains relatively limited.
This situation is now changing with the help of sophisticated satellite technologies allowing tagged marine animals to give up their secrets from beneath the waves. Combined with the internet much of this is available to the public.
CSIRO is taking this a step further with a new interactive platform called Ocean Tracks. The Ocean Tracks website has been designed to allow users to go into the depths of the sea with lifelike animations, from white sharks patrolling Australia’s southern coast, to southern blue fin tuna on their oceanic migrations.
Joining me on the phone to discuss it is CSIRO’s Dr Andy Steven. Andy, what exactly is Ocean Tracks, and how does it work?
Dr Steven: Ocean Tracks is a science meets game engine website, and it really offers lifelike three dimensional animations of fish, of real tracks of some of these fish and sharks that we’ve tracked over a number of years, and it shows them as they swim in their underwater environment. So the actual site can offer stories about these animals – you can view their tracks; you can swim underwater and experience what it is to see their underwater habitats.
Glen Paul: Righteo. So why have you decided to release this information now via a website?
Dr Steven: CSIRO’s invested a lot in some of this tag information, and we really realised that some of it is quite hard to understand, so putting it into a visual medium and the access of the internet, mobile phone, social platforms, allowing people to visualise how these animals are swimming around, how they’re interacting with different habitats, where they’re going to feed or to spawn, really provides a much richer context for people to understand, and for us to develop conservation strategies for some of these organisms.
Glen Paul: And I did go onto the website prior to the interview, and I found the experience quite realistic. You do get that sensation of being there with the shark when you go into the depths, and the movement of the shark seems to be quite realistic. Just how realistic is it from your perspective?
Dr Steven: I think it’s very realistic. It’s very difficult to get some of the light levels right, and so you get that sense if you swam with some of the sharks as they go in some of the deeper water, as you descend into the gloom. Other sites you seem to be seeing them as they swim through the water. I think given what we’ve achieved in a relatively short time is very realistic.
Glen Paul: Right. So who is it you’re predominately trying to engage with this website?
Dr Steven: It’s available to everyone. I guess we’re really focused on people that are interested in fisheries, and want to know a bit more about the importance of conservation of some of the organisms – some of them are rare and endangered – fisheries managers knowing where these organisms are travelling, and also people that are sort of interested in coastal management.
Glen Paul: Now, on the site you can see the migratory patterns of the tagged fish, and the distance some of the sharks travel is really quite amazing. How surprised are you when you see this kind of data?
Dr Steven: Oh, amazed. You know, some of the distances that these animals are travelling, right out into the Indian Ocean, then back again to Ningaloo Reef, and then out again, is really as I said telling you a lot about where these animals are moving to, what sort of habitats they might be moving to in terms of wanting to feed, or to want to spawn, those sorts of things, is tremendously important information for us to develop better conservation strategies for these organisms.
Glen Paul: Hmm. And how attached do you find yourself becoming to these animals as they’re tracked through the ocean?
Dr Steven: Oh, I think personalising them with some of the names gives you a sense of where they’re moving to. You do get pretty attached to them. A lot of the researchers that have worked with these and other organisms for a long, long time are obviously very close, and can tell you a lot more about the life history of many of these different species and individuals.
Through time we’re actually hoping to actually have some this data in real time, so that you can actually see where they’re moving to.
Glen Paul: And generally how long do they stay tagged? How long are the tags good for?
Dr Steven: Depends on the tags, and the life histories of the organisms. Some tags vary from archival tags that we can put into a fin, or into the belly, through to some of the modern day acoustic tags which when the organism surfaces can relay information about its position, its depth, and the water temperature, and those sorts of things.
Glen Paul: And the website itself, are you looking at further developing that down the line with some more add-ons?
Dr Steven: We certainly hope so. We’d like to add – at the moment there are five fish species and four shark species that are both coastal and oceanic – we would hope to expand the number of species that we’ve got up there, but also the number of individual tracks that are up there.
We’d also like to make some of the information available in real time, and then start relating it to some of this other physical information I told you, so the intersection of where a fish is swimming. For example, a whale shark, and whether there’s plankton blooms occurring at the time is the sort of information we as scientists want to get to, in terms of understanding where they’re moving to.
But being able to communicate that through Ocean Tracks, for people to see how these organisms are responding to changes in currents, plankton blooms, those sorts of things, would be tremendous insight I believe.
Glen Paul: And what’s the one main thing you’re learning about Australia’s marine life from ocean tracking?
Dr Steven: Really just how wide and far some of these organisms are moving around Australia, offshore of Australia, and then coming back. So sort of their migratory patterns and habitat use has been the key insight for us, again helping us to better develop management plans for some of these species.
Glen Paul: So if people do want to go and have a bit of play with the CGI sharks and get down to the depths, what’s the easiest way to find the website?
Dr Steven: So you can go to www.oceantracks.csiro.au and that’ll take you to the homepage. You can download a piece of software called Unity 3D, which allows you to visualise the game engine. If you don’t have that technology available, then you can also use what we call a low tech version, and you can get all the information about the species, interviews with some of the scientists that work on these descriptions of the tags, as well as some of the tracks.
Glen Paul: Well, it certainly is an impressive site, and obviously it’s taken some time to pull it all together. How long has it been in the making?
Dr Steven: The website’s taken about a year to put together. We worked closely with another company called The Project Factory, who helped us with a lot of the computer graphic animation work. But it actually builds upon 20 years of research that CSIRO has put into tagging these fish and looking at their tracks, so the data is all real, the animations have been put together, but as you will see are very realistic and based on a good understanding of these species.
Glen Paul: Hmm. And as I said, from my experience I found it to be quite realistic and somewhat eerie with the shark approaching you from the gloom, from the darkness.
Dr Steven: Doesn’t it? Yeah.
Glen Paul: I don’t think I’d like to see it for real. It’ll be interesting to see how the site’s taken up, and I thank you very much for talking to me about it today, Andy.
Dr Steven: Pleasure.
Glen Paul: Dr Andy Steven from CSIRO’s Wealth from Oceans Flagship. For more information go to www.csiro.au.