On Nov. 27, Stanford Woods Institute Senior Fellow Barbara Block was presented with the Rolex award for enterprise for her work to follow the comings and goings of large marine predators, such as great white sharks, using electronic tags. The $104,000 award is given every two years for outstanding achievement in science and innovation, and is intended to support a project that “deserves support for its capacity to improve lives, or protect the world’s natural and cultural heritage.” Block won the prize this past June in recognition of her mission to create a “wired ocean” where live feeds of predator movements are relayed by a series of “ocean WiFi hotspots” on moored buoys and self-propelled Wave Gliders carrying acoustic receivers off the California coast near San Francisco, between Monterey Bay and Bodega Bay.

Rolex Laureate Barbara Block - Tracking Great White Sharks

The project, called the “Blue Serengeti Initiative,” builds on the Tagging of Pacific Predators (TOPP) project, which was part of the international Census of Marine Life – a decade-long study of ocean species’ diversity, distribution and abundance. TOPP was a collaboration among 75 scientists from five nations, who utilized an array of electronic tags to follow the migrations of more than 4,300 individual animals, including sharks, tunas, whales, seals, seabirds and turtles. The researchers found that the West Coast of North America is an important hotspot for animals such as bluefin tunas, blue whales and leatherback turtles, ranging throughout the Pacific Ocean. The study revealed mysteries such as the so-called White Shark Café, an area halfway between Baja California and Hawaii that normally coastal white sharks frequent to loiter and dive deeply for unknown reasons.

“The Rolex award has helped us take an idea – the Blue Serengeti Initiative borne out of our-large tagging program – and pull it forward,” Block said. “Knowledge of how animals exploit the marine environment is critical for establishing effective ocean protection strategies across multi-national boundaries. To preserve and monitor marine biodiversity requires an increased commitment to biological ocean observing.”

Anyone can follow the tracking in real time with Shark Net, a free iOS app created by Block and others. Block, the Charles and Elizabeth Prothro Professor in Marine Sciences at Stanford's Hopkins Marine Station, hopes that Shark Net will enable a personal connection between the public and wild marine animals, and raise public awareness of the teeming ocean wilderness just off North America’s West Coast. The app’s development was funded in part by the Rolex award.

Block will use part of the prize money to test whether unmanned robots and buoys are useful for observing species in open oceans. Moving forward, she will focus on building the next generation of open-ocean biological observation technology and how best to protect open-sea predators. She’s also working on a plan to obtain United Nations World Heritage Site designation for regions of the California Current, an undersea river of water that supports a vital diversity and abundance of life with a steady supply of nutrients to the surface. “This place is one of the last wild places left on Earth,” Block said.


Photo (by Kip Evans): Wave Rider equipped with WiFi tracks marine animals in open ocean.