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Ocean Sanctuaries Offers Marine Citizen Science Projects

Citizen science, or community science, has gained popularity in recent years. Ocean Sanctuaries, based in San Diego, offers a few projects for interested divers.

Established in 2014, Ocean Sanctuaries creates and supports marine citizen science projects for divers around the world. Citizen science, or community science, has gained ground as a discipline recently, providing accurate and reliable data. Ocean Sanctuaries, based in San Diego, offers divers a variety of marine citizen projects.

Sharks of California

“Sharks of California” is open to both snorkelers and scuba divers. Anyone in the water can photograph and upload pictures of sharks they encounter to a citizen-science tool called “FieldScope,” which allows users to gather and record data for almost any science. Ocean Sanctuaries has adapted this tool for monitoring sharks.

For example, a snorkeler or diver might spot a leopard shark off the coast of San Diego in shallow water. They can simply point their camera or GoPro at the shark to record a photograph or video sequence. This is called a verified encounter, because even if the photographer is unsure of the species, once they upload it to FieldScope, a shark expert can confirm the species. FieldScope maintains a database of all previously photographed sharks. Ocean Sanctuaries has photographs ranging from whale sharks to angel sharks to great whites in the database, all taken by citizen scientists. When uploading an image, the diver or snorkeler can indicate their location, either via GPS or Google Maps. This provides an idea of where they saw each species.

Ocean Sanctuaries, of course, does not expect a diver to place themselves at risk to collect shark data. Safety is the primary consideration around any marine animal, especially sharks.

Sevengill Shark Identification Project

Ocean Sanctuaries also offers the Sevengill Shark Identification Project.

The broadnose sevengill shark (Notorynchus cepedianus) is named for the seven gill slits on either side of its body, as opposed to a shark’s more common five gills. Sevengills can reach lengths of 5 to 10 feet (1.5 to 3 m), weigh up to 236 pounds (107 kg) and can live up to 49 years.

Although this shark has a wide range, from California to South Africa, to New Zealand, it is subject to intense fishing pressure because of its habitat in inshore waters. Currently, the World Conservation Union (IUCN) lists the sevengill shark as “Data Deficient,” with data lacking in most regions. This makes it difficult to determine the overall status of this species. The IUCN currently assesses it as “Near Threatened” in the eastern Pacific Ocean.

For this citizen science project, divers complete a normal dive, and if they observe a sevengill shark and can take a photograph of the lateral view of its head and gill area without endangering their (or the shark’s) safety, they do so. After the dive, they upload that photograph to the Wildbook database at Sevengill Shark Sightings for analysis.

An open-source software framework, Wildbook supports collaborative mark-recapture, molecular ecology, and social-ecology studies, especially where citizen-science data needs to be incorporated and managed.

Fig. 1: Areas to be scanned by pattern recognition algorithm in Wildbook


Within Wildbook are two pattern-recognition algorithms, which scan submitted photographs and analyze the black freckling pattern seen around the eyes and gill area of this species. This identifies individuals in much the same way as a human fingerprint. In this way, photographs submitted over time in a single location can determine if and which sharks are returning from year-to-year.

The project is currently accepting data from divers in California, South Africa and New Zealand and has successfully identified over two dozen individual sevengills in the San Diego area.

Yukon Marine Life Survey

In 2000, the City of San Diego and the San Diego Oceans Foundation (SDOF), purchased, cleaned and sank a 366-foot-long Canadian warship called the HMCS Yukon to create an artificial reef, which has been spectacularly successful. The Yukon attracts plentiful local marine life and is becoming a revenue-generating attraction for traveling divers from around the world.

When the project began, both SDOF and the local scientific community were curious to understand the effects of an artificial reef on local fish populations and surrounding marine life. SDOF and Dr. Ed Parnell of Scripps Institution of Oceanography undertook a joint study and released the results in 2004. Data gathered by local citizen science divers was crucial to the study to generate a baseline of marine life species on the ship.

In 2015, Ocean Sanctuaries decided to use citizen science divers once again to gather data on the Yukon as a follow-up to the original 2004 survey. Divers monitor and record the marine life, both sessile (attached invertebrates) as well as fish, that has migrated onto the wreck since then.

Fig. 2: Giant plumose anemones and red gorgonian sea fans on the Yukon.
Photo credit: Michael Bear


Again, divers simply complete a normal dive on the wreck and take photographs of marine life they encounter. After the dive, they submit their images to the Ocean Sanctuaries database to create a species inventory over time. Since the Yukon lies in 100 feet of water, it is an advanced dive. No diver should exceed their level of training to collect data on the ship, nor should they penetrate the wreck to gather data.

The current Yukon Marine Life Survey will last at least five years. Once completed, the data will inform scientists of marine-life changes on the ship, enabling California coastal managers to evaluate the impact of artificial reefs on local marine species. See the KPBS Special that was done in 2016 by KPBS reporter Erik Anderson on this project and learn more about it here.

Later in 2017, Ocean Sanctuaries will offer a Marine Citizen Scientist certification course for both divers and non-divers in conjunction with REEF. For more information on the citizen science projects currently offered by Ocean Sanctuaries, check here.

By guest author Michael Bear, Citizen Science Project Director, Ocean Sanctuaries