By Alex Dobuzinskis
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The great white shark is lurking in cyberspace, in the form of an iPhone application launched this week that allows users to track a dozen of the predators as they roam around the Pacific Ocean.
The California-based Marine Conservation Science Institute launched the app, which the nonprofit describes as the first shark tracker of its kind, to raise funds for its research.
Great white sharks have scared and fascinated the public going back at least to Steven Spielberg's 1975 film "Jaws," and the animals' pop culture stardom continues in such television programming as the Discovery Channel's annual "Shark Week."
Michael Domeier and the Marine Conservation Science Institute he heads have also been featured on TV, through a National Geographic series called "Expedition Great White" that debuted in 2009 and was later renamed "Shark Men."
The institute received exposure from the show and the headline-grabbing theory Domeier has advanced that great whites might hunt giant squids, when they spends part of the year in a desolate patch of the Pacific between California and Hawaii.
The sharks that users can watch on their smartphone screens were tagged by the institute itself in recent years. But Domeier's institute remains relatively small, with only one other person on staff.
"This is an innovative way for us to be trying to raise money in this really challenging economy," Domeier said of his new application, which sells for $3.99 at iTunes.
The application, launched at iTunes on Wednesday, cost nearly $100,000 to produce, he said. Included in that budget was video content and a game for children to learn about great whites.
The institute has tagged more than 20 great white sharks, but the batteries on some of the tags expired, Domeier said. The iPhone application allows users to follow the migration of a dozen sharks the institute is still following, he said.
TRACKING DEVICES LINKED TO SATELLITES
The tracking devices on the sharks, which are linked to satellites, will not give the exact locations of the predators, so there is no fear that it could be used by hunters.
For the satellite to get a reading from a tracking device, a shark must be at the surface for at least three minutes, Domeier said. As a result, an updated position on each shark is not available every day.
"It's not super-precise, and the sharks are moving all the time," said Domeier, who holds a doctorate in marine biology and fisheries.
Ted Miller, a spokesman for Apple, said apart from the institute's product, he was not aware of any other shark-tracking application available at iTunes.
The institute plans to later launch iPad and Android versions of the app, but for now it is only available for Apple's iPhone.
Domeier said the great white shark remains a largely mysterious creature. The animals number in the thousands in the Pacific Ocean off California and Mexico, but their exact population in the region is unknown, he said.
"For decades, we thought of great whites as a temperate species that lives off the coast living off seals and small porpoises, but actually that's not true," he said.
"They spend a majority of their time out in the ocean, and we really don't know what they're doing there."
John O'Sullivan, curator of field operations at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, said he and colleagues talked about creating a tracking program for the public such as the one developed by Domeier. "He got off his butt and made it," O'Sullivan said.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature lists the great white shark as a vulnerable species, which is one level removed from endangered status.
Great whites have been among those species of sharks killed for shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy. The United Nations estimates that over 70 million sharks a year are killed for the dish. California lawmakers last year banned the soup in an effort to protect the animals.
(Reporting By Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)