Is it a shark? Is it a dolphin? Drones can help us find out

Researchers from Southern Cross University in Australia have spent the last three years using drones to study just how frequent public encounters with sharks are.

For those who’ve ever experienced swimming in the sea and spotted a dorsal fin or dark shape gliding past, knowing whether it’s a dolphin or shark is of vital importance. If it’s a dolphin, you’ll probably feel like you’re having a profound, amazing experience. If it’s a shark, you’ll likely lose your shit and struggle for dear life to get out of the water as soon as possible.

To conduct their study, the team spent two years flying regularly drone patrol over beaches in New South Wales. They then reviewed the extensive footage they captured and counted the number of sharks and dolphins they saw.

The results?

Over the extended period of observation, the researchers noted 4100 encounters with large marine animals. Lead researcher of the study, Professor Brendan Kelaher said: “Our beaches provide habitat for amazing marine animals including dolphins, sharks, rays, turtles, seabirds, game fish and the occasional whale.”

The team’s study concluded that it was 135 times more likely for a person to encounter a dolphin than a shark on the New South Wales beaches they observed.

“We do see potentially dangerous sharks in the shallows, but our data show they are much less common than people would have you believe,” Professor Kellaher said.

“The findings confirm that emerging drone technology can make a valuable contribution to the ecological information required to ensure the long-term sustainability of beach ecosystems.”

Sharks, long villainised in popular media, have been facing an onslaught from humans for several decades. Nature journal Marine Journal suggests that as many as 100 million sharks are killed by humans every year (or 11,400 sharks per hour). The majority of them are killed by fishermen who sell their fins to make shark fin soup, a popular dish in parts of Asia. Sharks, by the way, only kill about 10 humans worldwide every year.

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