Scientists are on a mission to create a "wired ocean" with the release of a smartphone app that lets users track marine animals in real time.

Shark Net, a free iOs app available at the Apple store, was developed by a team of researchers at Stanford University to raise awareness of ocean ecosystems and to create a personal connection between the public and wild marine animals just off North America's West Coast.

The app features customizable interactive maps that let users follow northern California white sharks in real time. It also features photo galleries, videos, historical tracking data and 3D interactive models.

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A Stanford-based research team is strategically deploying acoustic detection buoys in key locations where white sharks are known to congregate when close to shore. The app will notify users when a white shark passes within 1,000 feet or so of a listening device. (Stanford University)

The app is part of the Blue Serengeti Initiative, a project that involves installing a network of 'ocean WiFi hotspots' on fixed buoys and self-propelled robots in key locations throughout the Pacific.

These data receivers pick up signals from acoustic tags on animals passing within 1,000 feet and provides live feeds of predator movements.

App users receive a notification whenever a white shark passes by any of the acoustic detection devices.

The goal of the project, researchers said, is to create a better understanding of the ocean ecosystem and promote the protection of sharks, tunas and turtles that inhabit the area.

"People realize [protecting ocean biodiversity] is important, but it's hard for them to connect on a visceral, personal level to the incredible biodiversity in their own backyard," said Dr. Randall Kochevar, one of the developers of the app.

"Through this app, we're able to put the Blue Serengeti right in their hands," Kochevar said. "They can follow individual sharks and learn about their lives and feeding habits."

Wave Glider robot

The research team deployed an unmanned, self-propelled robot this week off the U.S. coast near San Francisco. The bright yellow, seven-foot long 'wave gilder' is the latest addition to the project's network of devices.

North America's West Coast is a particularly important spot because of the diversity of marine animals that pass through, including bluefin tunas, white and mako sharks, sooty shearwaters, leatherback sea turtles, elephant seals and blue whales.

Dr. Barbara Block, the Stanford professor leading the project, compares its significance to the African Serengeti because of the diversity and abundance of life.

"My mission is to protect ocean biodiversity and the open sea," she said. "This place is one of the last wild places left on Earth."