East Coast Shark Tracking

How an app is changing surfing on the right coast

Shark tracking: A new website to check as part of the pre-surf ritual?

If you’re on the U.S. East Coast, and you have an Internet connection, then you’ve become aware of the “great white shark tracker” phenomenon that has been sweeping the coast over the past five or six months. If you haven’t seen the site yet, visit it here.

Now, we’re all pretty aware that yes, sharks are out there. And we’d be fools for thinking that we’re doing anything other than venturing out into the shark’s territory every time we paddle out. But for the first time in my life, I have seen surfers pull the plug on a session because there were online rumors that a shark was approaching.

Word spread like wildfire that “Mary Lee” and her tracking device had pinged in the area and was swimming up the coast from Florida. For the past few months, she’s gone up and down the coast from Providence to St. Augustine. And now there’s a website that lets you check in on her location every day. Up-to-the-minute details on the predator’s location have sent many East Coast surfers running for the safety of their MacBooks. Meanwhile, the brave, foolish, or technology-deprived continue to go about their way.

During a recent session, I watched as surfers scrambled for their last wave as if surfing a heat against Joel Parkinson. This struck me as odd, especially since sharks along the East Coast aren’t anything new. Over the past 10 years or so, I’ve spent time on both coasts and have surfed some pretty sharky areas, and I haven’t seen a reaction from the local surfing community quite like this before.

Surfers are checking their phones not for a tide chart or swell report, but for the latest shark update. Maybe this is a good thing–local tourist towns up and down the coast would love to know they can protect their visitors and sound the alarms, and surfers with shark paranoia can sleep a little easier knowing that there are no sharks (with tracking devices on) in their areas. Then again, surfers seem to be running scared at the slightest hint of a rumored shark alert, meaning lineups are often half as full when a report shows a marked shark is in the area.

At the very least, this new technology has given us something to think about. Will you spend your time obsessing about the sharks the same way you do about the tides, swell, and weather? Or will you take your chances and just say “Screw it, I’m out there”?