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Barbara Block

Eyes in the ocean

Published in 2012clockTime to read: 40s
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Stanford professor Barbara Block is tagging top marine predators, revealing the mysteries of their lives and their prospects for survival.

locationUnited States

Science is permitting astonishing discoveries about the web of living things that enmeshes the globe, enabling scientists to build a report card on the health of the oceans and to guide their management. Driven by a lifelong awe of the sea, marine biologist Barbara Block is impelled to discover all she can about large fish, such as tuna and great white sharks, and their remarkable feats of physical survival and long-distance navigation.

I envision a time when these buoys are all over the world, like acoustic mouse-traps, constantly monitoring coastlines and reporting on both resident and visiting sea creatures. Gradually we are building a fantastic tool for managing the world’s marine wildlife.

Block and her team monitor their movements through buoys, electronic tags, and wave gliders that detect a tagged animal whenever it is in their proximity and send signals back via Iridium satellite to a data centre at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station, in California, where an elaborate picture of their movements is gradually emerging. “We are building a fantastic tool for managing the world’s marine wildlife,” says Block, who scaled up her project to monitor marine-protected areas in the Palmyra atoll in the Pacific Ocean and the Chagos archipelago in the Indian Ocean. Students and members of the public are also now following the adventures of individual sharks and fish via an app known as Shark Net.

Among Block’s remarkable discoveries are three prodigious seasonal hot spots off the California coast that draw sea life – especially predators – from across the Pacific in their thousands. Block calls this region the Blue Serengeti for its semblance to the great game reserves of Africa where predators still range free. It is the focus of her long-tern project and her wish to study, understand and conserve life in the oceans.

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