Fun in the Field: Shark Research under the Stars

Posted on December 19, 2011
Written by: Hannah Medd

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My mom doesn’t quite understand my passion for sharks, particularly my desire to get as close as possible to them. She’s far more comfortable with my work in education and outreach with Shark Savers. However, when an email came through early 2011, offering a chance to participate in the Bimini Biological Field Station’s Marquesas Keys Lemon Shark Census Project, catching and tagging sharks with the eminent shark scientist Dr. Samuel H. Gruber, a.k.a. Doc, I jumped at the chance.

Needless to say, Mom was less than thrilled while I was more than thrilled at the prospect of getting back in the field again. Plans change, as they do with field work, and the staff and volunteers shifted focus to surveying sharks off the east coast of Jupiter, Florida rather than the Marquesas. But no matter, eager volunteers came from a variety of backgrounds (lab scientists, food quality control, wildlife biologists, PhD students), all with a shared passion for sharks. We were instantly good friends.

At our first meeting, the goals of the field work were explain by Doc and postdoctoral fellow, Steve Kessel. Understanding the movements of lemon sharks in the western Atlantic is important and that knowledge could be used to further protect this species and its habitat. For example, the vast data collected by Doc, his students and staff were vital in the 2010 statewide protection of lemon sharks in Florida; if these sharks are to receive much-needed federal protection, we need more tracking information along the U.S East Coast.

We quickly settled into our daily tasks: the seemingly endless gear had to be prepared and packed and loaded into trucks, offloaded onto the vessel and organized for the efficient use on deck. Field work can sound romantic to some, launching a boat in the Florida sunshine, playing with state-of-the-art technology, coming face to face with a shark, and contributing to science and hopefully conservation. However, most field work also consists of heavy-lifting, a lack of sleep, getting soaking wet and freezing cold, covered in grease, oil, blood, and goodness-knows-what-else. With no surprise, everyone took on the tasks with a smile proving the adage that when you love what you do, the little stuff doesn’t matter.

We headed out for some night fishing on the vessel Dykoke, owned and operated by Mike Newman, a former shark fisherman turned conservationist. We used high flyers, or large buoys with poles through the middle and radar reflectors on top where GPS trackers and strobes can be attached.

The bait, this time mainly fresh caught barracuda, was attached to the circle hooks (used to minimize injury to the sharks’ mouths) at the end of strong line clipped to a swordfish buoy and then to the high flyer.

After a few deployments of the gear in different locations, the swordfish buoy was bouncing around like a kid on a trampoline. Immediately, everyone knew we had a shark on the line and without hesitation everyone began their assigned task.

The line was pulled in and the cutest, flawless little Caribbean reef shark (Carcharinus perezi) was swiftly and carefully pulled onboard. A wet rag covered the shark’s eyes and a saltwater hose kept it breathing calmly. The team was ready with the sampling equipment and quickly took measurements, a fin clip for DNA analysis and a blood sample; we applied a tag and removed a small external parasite for later identification. The hook was smoothly removed and the little shark was released, followed by many high-fives among the team.

Although we did not sample any other sharks during our field work, there was plenty to learn that night. Steve theorized that the lemon sharks might be further north up the coast, following the warmer water. Mike mentioned rumors of longliners fishing the same area just days before we arrived, possibly catching or scaring off the few lemon sharks in the area.

We passed the hours with stories of our own field work, me tagging and tracking great whites in South Africa and another volunteer chasing tagged eagle rays in New Zealand. We discussed the prospects of starting PhD programs or graduating from them. We lamented over the difficulties of securing grants and funding. And, of course, Doc regaled us with stories about the shark research ways of yore. So even without any sharks ‘on-deck’, it was a very shark-y night.

As the sun peaked over the Gulf Stream, Mike docked the boat, we scrambled to unload the gear, get it home to clean, sort and store, and get ready for the next day’s trip. Exhaustion made all of us giddy, or perhaps our joy came because we knew we were a small part of what will hopefully be a big solution; we all believe that the daily grind of shark field work will provide data that can be applied to meaningful conservation policy.

To learn more about Shark Savers and our conservation programs here. To learn more about the research conducted by the Bimini Biological Field Station please visit: http://www6.miami.edu/sharklab/