An ocean hacker with real teeth

Hey, leggo my cable! The sand tiger shark is just one of the toothy predators out there that could be feasting on your internet feed. Fionaayerst | Dreamstime.com

The saboteur slinks toward a cable that could be a lifeline to the international internet. He suddenly snaps into it.

Terrorist attack?

No, it’s a shark attack, apparently a cow shark in this case. The lack of a frontal dorsal fin gives it away in a murky video shot on the sea bottom in 2014 for Google.

Sharks attacking the internet? Strange as it sounds, it happens. And the problem is bigger than little nips, bites or bytes. Many people don’t realize that international computer communications rely on the cables, and Global Marine Systems has reported more than 2,800 failures so far, for one reason or another.

Google alone has laid some 100,000 miles of fiber-optic cable across the world’s ocean floor, literally lying there like unburied television cable across someone’s yard. The company is alarmed enough about sharks it has begun wrapping its lines in Kevlar, the material used in bulletproof vests.

So add computers to the list of prey fancied by the alpha predators that haunt the Lowcountry coast and oceans worldwide.

They do it for the buzz.

“It really boils down to one of the senses sharks use that is different than humans — electromagnetic fields,” said Arnold Postell, South Carolina Aquarium senior biologist, who specializes in sharks. It comes down to goo.

The shark might be better known for its nose, an incredible ability to smell blood in the water, a single drop in an Olympic-size pool for some species, according to the American Museum of Natural History. But right there at the tip of that nose are a few gooey pores that “smell” any electromagnetic emission different than the shark’s own.

All living cells emit an electromagnetic field. When the shark hones in for the kill, the goo picks up on electric emissions that muscles emit, particularly struggling muscles. That’s why the strikes are so precise even in the murky waters of the Lowcountry.

Reports of shark attacks on trans-ocean cable lines go back to the first lines laid. And the strikes aren’t the worst danger out there.

Cables have been broken by corrosion, anchors, icebergs, undersea landslides, even a whale that evidently fell on an Alaskan cable when the mammal died, according to atlanticcable.com. The repair crew found its carcass straddling the line.

But there’s little doubt sharks have become the wire-chewing rats of the sea. AT&T, which declined comment for this story, reportedly has pulled shark teeth from its cables. The fiber-optic cables carrying internet feed are particularly susceptible because they are relatively delicate lines.

Shark bites on the cables tend to be the mistaken nips they often give people, that first taste to see if it’s food. The shark in the video nips once gently then lets go, Postell said.

But the bigger the shark, the bigger the nip. “A single bite can be pretty impactful on an individual,” he said, “or even these cables.”

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