How Modern Tech is Taking the Plunge to Track and Save Marine Life

Whether you want to track ocean life or just keep your boat clean, modern technologies are there to make life at sea a little easier.

Credit: A search and rescue boat scours the vast ocean for the missing plane. REUTERS/Kham

On March 8, Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 took off from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing, and, two hours later, simply vanished. How was it possible that a huge airplane with hundreds on board could disappear so completely? Well, Flight 370 disappeared over water -- and it turns out that once you get even a little bit away from land, you go out of reach of the seemingly omnipresent network of monitoring systems that we take for granted.

That's starting to change, somewhat, as our technology gains a toehold in the 70% of our planet covered with water. This slideshow takes a look at some of these advances, from tools to track fish to boats improved by landlubber technologists.

Sniffing out eel fraud

In Japan, locally caught eel is a highly sought-after delicacy, even though most consumers can't tell the difference between native eels and imports. Interlopers can be discovered via DNA testing, but that has traditionally been time-consuming and expensive -- until recently, with the advent of dedicated single-chip DNA processors. The new system, from a California-based company called Life Technology, reduces the testing cost by a factor of a thousand, down to about 20 to 30 cents an eel -- and Japanese diners can now be sure they're getting what they pay for. (You have to question whether it's worth paying extra for something if you can't taste the difference between it and the cheap stuff, though?)

Tracking fish with QR codes

In the U.S., New England fishing companies are starting to track the provenance of their catch in similarly high-tech ways. Red's Best, a fish dealer operating out of the Boston Fish Pier, uses software developed by company owner Jared Auerbach to tag each shipment with a wealth of information about where, how, and by whom it was caught, all encoded in a QR code on the package. Auerbach has found that he can command a higher price from buyers this way -- especially from restaurants eager to tell customers the story of the fish they're about to eat.

Keeping an eye on illegal fishing

Just as important as keeping track of fish from responsible sources is making sure bad guys don't prosper. Gib Brogan, Fisheries Campaign Manager for the preservation organization Oceana, points to the use of vessel monitoring systems (VMS) that track fishing boats and make sure they don't get too close to endangered fisheries and other areas where they could do harm. For instance, in 2013 the National Marine Fisheries Service issued regulations requiring that drift gill net fishing vessels be equipped with VMS in order to protect sperm whales.

Sensors that monitor oyster happiness

"Happy as a clam" is a cliche, but how can we really tell how happy your average bivalve is? Well, Australia's Barilla Bay oyster farm has been working to find out, participating in a government pilot program that fits oysters with credit card-sized sensor "backpacks" that monitor various aspects of the creatures' health and environment to make sure they're developing as they should. The sensors also mean that farmers no longer need to wrench the oysters from their underwater homes to check on their growth, which can only mean good things for their health and well-being (right up to the part where people eat them because they're delicious).

Tracking adorable baby turtles

Environmentalists have put great effort into protect loggerhead sea turtle nesting sites along Florida's coast. But scientists had little idea where the baby turtles went once they reached the water, since it's difficult to attach tracking sensors to the shells of the rapidly growing young sea reptiles with traditional adhesives.

Enter an unusual scientific assistant: the personal grooming industry. On the advice of a manicurist, University of Central Florida scientists tried applying an acrylic coating to the turtle shells, which are similar to fingernails. Sensors are then attached to the turtle via flexible, waterproof hair extension glue. As a result, the researchers were able to figure out where the loggerheads spend their adolescence (the Sargasso Sea, it turns out).

Tracking -- and saving -- sharks

Sharks may not be as cuddly as sea turtles, but they're still of great interest to researchers and civilians alike, and shark research doesn't shy away from the state of the art. A great white shark named Lydia was fitted with a satellite tag near Jacksonville, Florida, and tracked more than halfway across the Atlantic; you can follow her progress on the Ocearch website.

Sharks also need to be protected, as many threatened species are caught up by commercial fisherman trying to hook tuna or halibut. Researcher Eric Stroud discovered that sharks have electrical sensors that can be overwhelmed by magnetism or certain metals, and is developing special fishhooks that will repel them.

The Exosuit

Maybe you'd like to do your ocean exploring more personally, rather than letting sensors monitor things remotely? Canadian diver and entrepreneur Phil Nuytten has been working for years on creating person-sized diving equipment that can achieve greater depths than SCUBA divers can. His latest invention is the Exosuit, a six foot five inch powered pressurized one-person submarine/exoskeleton. After a month on display at the Museum of Natural History in New York, the suit will get its first real test in the ocean this July.

Autonomous wave-powered sea-robots

When Java inventor James Gosling left his gig at Google after only a few months, the tech world was pretty startled by where he jumped to: Liquid Robotics, a company that specializes in autonomous ocean-going research robots. Gosling seems quite happy to be working on the new project, calling it "Soul of a New Machine stuff" on his personal blog. One of the most intriguing things about the company's Wave Glider marine robots, demonstrated in this video, is that it's entirely powered by energy from the waves it floats on.

Robotic cargo ships

At the other end of the spectrum from these tiny robots are the "drone" container cargo ships being proposed by Rolls Royce's marine unit. The ships would be run from "virtual bridges" on dry land, and would be able to carry more freight, use less fuel, and cost less to operate than current vessels. Rolls Royce says they could be in use within the next ten years; the implementation is being opposed by seafarers' unions, who claim the ships can never ben as safe as human-manned craft.

Robotic ship inspectors

Nautical professionals apparently don't have to wait a decade to be displaced by robots, though. Students at ETH Zurich, an elite Swiss technical university, have been working on a robot that can conduct inspections of cargo ship's ballast tanks. These tanks, which are filled with and emptied of seawater to compensate for the shifting weight of cargo being on- and offloaded, suffer from corrosion and algae infestations, and need to be inspected every five years while the ship is kept in dry dock at great expense. The Ship Inspecting Robot proposes to do the same job while the ship is at sea, getting into dangerous nooks and crannies where people can't go.

Credit: Emirates Team New Zealand
Building the perfect yacht

Even on ships still completely manned by humans in the old-fashioned style, high tech is making its mark. The most recent America's Cup race -- hosted in San Francisco Bay by Oracle founder and sailing nut Larry Ellison -- featured boats that were designed and tested by computer before they ever took physical form or touched the water. Emirates Team New Zealand used computer modeling to figure out how to get the boat to lift out of the water while sailing while still staying within the rules laid down by the competition. They were ultimately defeated by Oracle Team USA, which used its sponsor's Exadata servers to work its dark magic.