Sebastian Zietz pulls into a tube at the Volcom Pipe Pro held at Pipeline recently. Photo: WSL Keoki

Who would have thought – a camera that spots a white shark, and tells you about it?

Our proudly Capetonian Shark Spotters recently announced a unique computerised camera network that will enable them to do their job better, by spotting more sharks.

Swiss science consultants PatternLab have just made the Shark Spotters one of the most cutting edge organisations in the world, if computer boffins are to be believed that machine learning is the new big thing.

Machine learning is the “scientific study of algorithms and statistical models that computer systems use to effectively perform a specific task without using explicit instructions, relying on patterns and inference instead.

“It is seen as a subset of artificial intelligence”, according to Wikipedia.

What on earth, or in the sea, does that have to do with the Shark Spotters? Well, a special camera was set up above Muizenberg so they could bombard a computer programme with footage of sharks so that it could “learn” to recognise a white shark.

Machine learning is all about repetition.

You have to repeat words to ‘teach’ your phone to know your voice, for instance. The more data, the better the results.

I don’t know much about the inner workings except that the software comprises code that creates a sort of feedback loop that slowly builds a multi-faceted recognition profile.

Big weather forecasting systems use similar algorithms that feed actual real-time weather data back into the system to make it more accurate in the future.

To be successful, however, PatternLab needed lots of footage to feed their hungry machine. But the population of False Bay great whites has plunged in recent years. In a case of very bad timing, their demise appeared to peak right at the time of the testing.

People like white shark pioneer and shark tourism operator Chris Fallows have noticed this decline over several years.

Fallows used to get an average of 11 white shark sightings per boat trip. Now he gets 0.3.

It is thought a particular sub-species of killer whales is responsible, or a long-line fishery that targets sharks and other fish that the white sharks feed on.

To get around this, the team had a metal replica of a white shark made. This was towed behind a boat and filmed from different angles and distances to build the profile they needed.

At the launch of the system at the Save Our Seas Shark Centre this week, PatternLab’s Dr Krzysztof Kryszczuk said while they were happy with their progress, there were limitations and technical challenges.

Dirty water and the glare of the sun are not just detrimental to human eyes squinting at the ocean.

The idea is that the automated sighting will still have to be corroborated by a person to limit the margin for error.

As Shark Spotter CEO Sarah Waries explained, a network of low-cost fixed cameras would enhance the current human-based observer programme.

The system would not mean job losses. In fact, they hoped the system will lead to expansion to where the Spotters don’t have a presence, meaning more jobs. Pretty cool, hey?

All Fired Up

Controversy remains about SA military plans to blast targets in the ocean off Muizenberg next Tuesday night using low-flying jet fighters and beach-based artillery.

This is part of Armed Forces Day to commemorate the sinking of SS Mendi in the English Channel during World War 1.

Lieutenant Colonel Michael Kachelhoffer says it is good preparation for soldiers and a chance for people to see their military capability.

He also claims soldiers will not fire ammunition that detonates below the water line, so it won’t put marine life at risk. It’s hard to believe any city council would approve of this, but they apparently have.

Weather Tip

Today the surf looks around 2-3’ with a southerly breeze. Muizenberg looks light to moderate onshore and a bit messy.

Tomorrow looks hot and windy, with a fresh SSE going strong and blown out, with freezing water and 2-3’ peaks on the low tide for the brave.


Weekend Argus

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