Immersive 3D Virtual Reality Video Camera Helps Shark & Ray Conservation

How VR can help us learn more about Sharks and Rays

One of the main threats to shark and ray conservation is a lack of knowledge! We can’t protect important habitats if we don’t know where they are and when sharks and rays need these habitats for feeding or reproducing! Also, data sources are mostly from fisheries and especially from fish markets! So, we are getting information on sharks and rays that are no longer in their ecosystem. There is an urgent need for non-destructive data-gathering methods and more education about these amazing creatures who have an undeserved bad reputation.

Over 1000 species of sharks and rays are described worldwide, with over 100 listed in the Northeast Atlantic, where these species are much more threatened than globally. In mainland Portugal, around 44 species of sharks and rays are commonly caught by commercial fisheries, but many more species occur in these waters.

The importance of sharks and rays goes way beyond cool action movies and kids’ songs! They are predators at the top of the food chain, contributing to the balance of the whole ecosystem. Further, they represent one of the most enduring success stories of evolution, with amazing adaptations that have survived for hundreds of millions of years! They have a lot to teach us about adaption and innovation as we try to mimic them for our own technological solutions.

[Blue shark (Prionace glauca) at a supermarket in Portugal. Photo by Miguel P. Pais]

Our project and goals

“FindRayShark” is a project funded by “Fundo para a Conservação dos Oceanos”, from Oceanário de Lisboa and the Oceano Azul Foundation. It aims to test cutting-edge non-invasive methods to find rays and sharks (the hint is in the name, we know). We are using the Berlengas Islands in Portugal as our test site.

One of the methods we will use is called environmental DNA metabarcoding, which is basically detecting shark and ray DNA in the water, so that we don’t even have to see them to know they were there! DNA in the water can be transported by water currents. To increase accuracy, we will also use baited video cameras hanging from buoys to detect the presence of sharks and rays and delimit key habitat areas and employ 3D stereoscopic video to make accurate size estimations.

By identifying species and their key areas, we can improve regulation and management of marine protected areas and fisheries catch limits. Education and outreach are also a core component of our project, so we will tackle the widespread misinformation regarding these amazing creatures.

[The Berlengas Islands on the horizon, seen from the Portuguese west coast. Photo by Miguel P. Pais]

So, where does the VUZE 3D 360° camera come in?

Well, unidirectional video cameras have the problem of missing a lot of the action. When a fish goes out of the field of vision and comes back to it later, it’s difficult to tell if it’s the same fish so you end up counting it twice. See the picture?

Video can also be an amazing tool for outreach! Being able to transport the public to the creature’s habitat has been a very effective way of educating the public! We can transmit the amazing sight of a shark or ray swimming peacefully around us, while clearly giving a sense of depth and distance thanks to the magic of immersive 3D video!

[The VUZE camera before a dive at the Berlengas Islands. Photo by Miguel P. Pais]

We have been using the VUZE+ and a VUZE VR 3D 360 camera with a single underwater case, switching the camera while the previous one charges on board. So far, we have tested the camera handheld while diving, fixed on a tripod underwater, and strapped to a baited metal structure hanging from a buoy. The VUZE camera is useful for estimating the abundance of other fish, which are potential prey for sharks and rays, so being able to see 360-degree video allows us to capture all the valuable information that we need for our program.

The next phase will be to build more permanent structures that can fit the VUZE underwater case more securely. Currently we have a make shift setup that works, but the underwater case is hanging from a rope which isn’t as secure as we would like.

[Releasing a baited structure with the VUZE camera attached at the Faial Island in the Azores. Photo: Diana Catarino]

[VUZE camera attached to the deployed baited camera structure, with a traditional action camera attached to the vertical pole for comparison. Photo: Kat Mason]

VR for education

Thanks to the VUZE footage, we have been able to acquire funding for an Oculus Go standalone VR headset. The Go will be used in outreach activities for the project to educate the public and drive awareness. So far, the reactions and interest have been amazing, both with kids and adults! Most people don’t even know that there are sharks in their country, and that they are not a threat, since they have mostly gone unnoticed all these years! Having immersive 360-degree 3D footage to show a blue shark calmly swimming near a diver which is the perfect example that co-existence can be peaceful.

[Showcasing the VUZE camera at a science fair in Lisbon, Portugal.]

[360 VR video from the VUZE camera is a key part of the project outreach activities.]

The team

This project wouldn’t be possible without the amazing efforts from our team. The core team is made up of five young and enthusiastic marine biologists from four different Portuguese institutions. The Marine and (MARE) at the University of Lisbon, the Portuguese Institute for the Sea and Atmosphere (IPMA), the Research Center for Biodiversity and Genetic Resources (CIBIO) and the Okeanos Research Center of the University of the Azores.

Sofia Henriques

Sofia is the lead Biologist in the project. She has a degree in Marine Environmental Biology, a Masters in Ecology and Environmental Management and a PhD in Marine Biology. Her research focuses on functional ecology of marine and estuarine biodiversity, focusing on how different species are related in a network of dependencies. She is also a passionate SCUBA diver with extensive experience on underwater visual

Miguel Pessanha Pais

Miguel has extensive experience on underwater visual survey methods. He has a degree in Marine Environmental Biology, a Masters in Ecology and Environmental Management and a PhD in Marine Biology. His research focuses on the ecology and diversity of coastal fish assemblages, survey design, ecological modelling and spatial simulation. He is of course a SCUBA diver too, a moderately crazy tech geek and the main contact point between the VUZE camera makers, HumanEyes, and the project.

Rita Vasconcelos

Rita has extensive experience on connectivity patterns, fish ecology and how the environment shapes biodiversity. She has a degree in Biology and a PhD in Marine Biology. Her research focuses on understanding our ability to predict diversity and abundance of fish using fancy statistical models, and also on identifying important areas for species, and how they connect with each other. She also has extensive field experience, spending a lot of time in and around boats and fishing gears, and has recently started working on monitoring commercial fisheries resources.

Ana Veríssimo

Ana is the DNA expert in the team, doing the lab magic that can turn water into useful information. She has a degree in Biology and a PhD in Marine Sciences. Her research focuses on population genetics and evolution of sharks and rays, particularly on the evolutionary processes that have shaped the current biodiversity. While her tasks in the project focus on lab work, she has lots of stories to tell as a field ecologist from rivers to the ocean.

Jorge Fontes

Jorge is responsible for pilot studies in the Azores Islands and has experience with the design and use of baited camera systems, as well as satellite and acoustic tags for sharks and rays. He has a degree in Marine Biology and a PhD in Marine Ecology. His research focuses on movement patterns of fish and technology applied to ecological research. He is also a SCUBA diver and a freediver. If you’ve seen nature documentaries about the Azorean oceans, you’ve probably seen him.

project partners

The project is funded by “Fundo para a Conservação dos Oceanos”, provided by Oceanário de Lisboa and the Oceano Azul Foundation.

HumanEyes is a project partner due to the shared interests in VR for education, underwater 3D footage and educational outreach.

JustDive, a dive center in Peniche, Portugal, is the main logistics partner for dives and field surveys.