Asking Questions and Doing Things

Swimming with the Sharks

Learn how scientists from Osearch are geo-tagging Great White Sharks

CAPE COD, MA – It all starts with someone being crazy enough to think attaching a transmitter to an adult great white sharks dorsal fin is a good idea. 

For most of the past year a team scientists with flippers and computers and nerves of steal have been patrolling the waters from Cape Cod to Jacksonville with that collective thought in mind.

The team is cautious. This collection of marine biologists, naturalists and number-crunchers are keenly aware of the awesome power of the Great White Shark.

A video showing the recent capture and tagging of a great white is awesome in it’s bravado and captivating in that circus performer tempting a ring full of Tigers sort of way. I watched in awe as a great white shark was baited, then lured onto a sunken platform raised out of the water to pen the shark.

In all fairness, my stick-figure notes and recording I was making read closer to, “Holy $#!^ – Crazy F’n Scientist jumped overboard, giant shark (arrow right) swims (arrow right) scientist, platform (arrow up), Yikes! shark trapped. crazy scientist jumps back on boat. Holy $#!^ – I need a drink!”

In any event, following capture a team of scientists descended to the deck of the platform and secured the shark, then began to monitor heartbeat, measure length, approximate weight and maintain temperature. A heavy wollen blanket was used to cover the sharks eyes and maintain calm.

It is a beautiful sight. This passion to study this sea creature of legend and lore. Despite it’s beauty, scientists made every to work quickly and efficiently.

Ocean water was pumped through a pipe fitted into the sharks mouth to run sea water through its gills. The activity mimics the ocean environment. On the platform, the shark is still.

Other scientists attach a homing beacon to the captured sharks dorsal fin. The beacon is tested. The tagging is successful. A homing beacon will now release a submarine-like geo-location ping. The team now has the ability to track the shark whenever its dorsal fin breaks the ocean surface.

Once tests and tagging are completed, all scientists clear the platform and the deck is lowered down and the shark is released back to the sea. Cheering and congratulations ensue. And well deserved at that. These brave men and women are putting their lives on the line to crack the mysteries of the deep.

Groundbreaking Research

In September 2012, Dr. Greg Skomal was given the privilege of naming the first captured shark. In-turn he selected to name the almost 15-foot shark that weighed an estimated 2,500 pounds, Genie after Eugenie Clark.

Born May 4, 1922, Eugenie Clark had started studying sharks in the 1950’s and still does to this day. She is founder of Mote Marine Laboratories and is often referred to as ‘The Shark Lady.’

More specifically, she is an American ichthyologist known for her research on poisonous fish of the tropics and on the behavior of sharks. “She’s a very special lady who inspired us all.” says Skomal.

Studying the OSEARCH website this morning, I am transfixed that earlier this week a ping from a 16-foot Great White Female named Mary Lee was detected off the Georgia coast and that two other large females, Genie and Lydia were also recently tracked patrolling the waters near my adopted Hilton Head Island home.

According to information on the organizations website, Lydia, a 16-foot female Great White was tagged last fall and named after OCEARCH expedition leader Chris Fischer’s mother.

“My parents have done so much. I was waiting and waiting for a special shark to name after her and this is truly the most historic and legendary fish I have ever been a part of and it set the tone for Cape Cod,“ says Chris.

Too Close for Comfort?

This story of Great White Sharks patrolling our waters has struck a cord with me. On one hand I’ve always known that sharks were just off shore, then on the other hand I’m fascinated by the science of it all.

As a newspaper reporter in search of an earlier story, I had the good fortune of spending time on the docks of Woods Hole, MA and have walked the oceanographic research halls of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and Marine Biological Laboratory. I’ve had the opportunity to see the skeleton of Great White Sharks and was an impressionable child when the movie Jaws was filmed in my back yard.

Not that it wouldn’t be enought that I was raised swimming and fishing in the waters where Lydia, Genie and Mary Lee were tagged, but more importantly today my own children visit the beaches of Hilton Head Island, where these sharks (and others) are known to roam.

Returning to the Osearch website, I find myself looking for a pattern to the pings and am strangely fascinated to learn that hunting patterns are starting to emerge.

Expedition Cape Cod, MASSACHUSETTS –August  2013

A press release on the Ocearch website reads: “OCEARCH is launching what is anticipated to be the largest Great White Shark expedition in U.S. history on July 30, 2013, off the coast of Cape Cod, to further both science and public safety.  The 17th expedition led by OCEARCH Founding Chairman Chris Fischer, it is scheduled to run through August 29, 2013.  The objective will be to capture, tag and release 10-20 Great White Sharks while providing top scientists 15 minutes with each shark to conduct approximately 12 scientific studies.

“The increased summertime population of Great White Sharks off Cape Cod has drawn significant science and public safety attention, specifically a quest for increased knowledge. OCEARCH facilitates research and shares data on the breeding, feeding, migration, and birthing patterns of sharks, Last summer OCEARCH tagged two Great Whites named Mary Lee and Genie off Cape Cod and in March a Great White named Lydia was tagged by OCEARCH off Jacksonville, FL.

“Those sharks, along with over 30 others, are being tracked on the Global Shark Tracker by millions.   The new sharks tagged in Cape Cod, ideally 10-20 total, will be immediately available for anyone to follow, including school students.

“EXPEDITION CAPE COD 2013 will be different from OCEARCH’s 2012 Cape Cod expedition in that the research team will be working in an area known for high populations of seals.

“Leading the collaborative team will be MA Division of Marine Fisheries Senior Scientist and WHOI Adjunct Scientist Dr. Greg Skomal along with Dr. Bob Hueter and Dr. Nick Whitney of the Mote Marine Laboratory.

“They will be joined by Dr. Simon Thorrold of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and numerous other scientists and institutions including University of Massachusetts, University of North Florida, Middle Tennessee State University, College of Charleston, Cape Canaveral Scientific and the Georgia Aquarium.

Skomal stated: “This expedition brings together an amazing team of researchers with broad experience in multiple disciplines. In doing so, we will be conducting over a dozen studies on white sharks, ranging from broad and fine scale migratory patterns to sonograms.  Our knowledge base on Atlantic white sharks will grow exponentially, helping both science and public safety.”

Follow the Expedition #ExpeditionCapeCod. For daily updates and more information check out the Osearch website at http://www.ocearch.org/ or do a quick Google search for research from the Endangered Species List at Carcharodon Carcharias  http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/3855/0

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