Meet the Scientists Who Chase Down White Sharks - NBC Boston

Meet the Scientists Who Chase Down White Sharks

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    A team of shark-lovers hits the waves to track and catalog the sharks that enter Massachusetts waters. (Published Friday, June 30, 2017)

    Omar is back in town and many people may not be keen to run into him or the rest of his friends. That's because Omar is a shark lovingly named by the team at the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy (AWSC).

    Each year, a team hits the waves to track and catalog sharks that enter Massachusetts waters. NBC Boston joined the team as they set off from Chatham, Massachusetts in late-June to see what it is like to chase sharks.

    Tagging Sharks With the Atlantic Shark ConservatoryTagging Sharks With the Atlantic Shark Conservatory

    Packed on the small boat were Cynthia Wigren, President and Co-founder Atlantic White Shark Conservancy, Captain John King,  Pam King, Ph.D. student Megan Winton, and Gregory Skomal from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries.

    Every one of them had a role that day in locating, filming, and tagging the sharks, according to Skomal. It all starts with their “eye in the sky” Wayne Davis, a professional spotter who flies over the water looking for sharks.

    A shark sighting came early that day and it was time for Captain King to speed over to the location.

    “That has to be a well choreographed, team oriented process,” said Skomal. “It gets fun.”

    Once they got close, Wigren monitored the water that day with a hydrophone to see if the shark had already been tagged. The tags emit a radio signal that identifies the shark and provides the data for research.

    Skomal then checks the shark using a GoPro camera on a long pole. Pam King is ready to activate the GoPro cameras on the boat and capture the underwater creatures.

    If the shark has not been tagged, then it is all hands on deck for the team.

    Omar the shark had already been tagged and was the only shark seen on their trip that day. This is pretty standard for June, but the shark sightings increase drastically between July and August.

    For untagged sharks, the captain continues to follow the shark while Skomal grabs a pole with a small intramuscular dart that is inserted into the dorsal fin of the shark. He has been doing this with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries for 30 years and knows just when to throw the dart to hit the intended target.

    Skomal said that tagging the shark while it is moving is preferred to capturing the animal, even though it takes more precision to do it right and make sure the shark is not harmed.

    The data collected by the tags is invaluable to their research into the local habits, behaviors and broad scale movements, and migrations of the white sharks. Winton was there to help log the data collected that day and support the team’s research efforts.

    The AWSC has a series of acoustic receivers that let them know when a tagged shark has passed by.

    On top of that, Captain King said that every interaction with the sharks, which usually take place close to shore in the shallow water, is logged on their map. Over the past three years, they have had over 1,500 interactions with white sharks in the area.

    Researchers using a plane and boats spotted 147 individual white sharks last summer. That was up slightly from 2015, but significantly more than the 80 individual sharks spotted in 2014.

    Seals are attracted to the conservation beach in that area because there are no people around to bother them. This concentration of seals also attracts the hungry sharks.

    The team jokingly calls this area “The Coliseum” due to the feeding frenzy that takes place when the sharks come.

    All of this research is to support the sustainability of the white sharks, and to provide information to people in areas where sharks visit. For Skomal, working with his sharp-toothed friends is a labor of love.

    “For me sharks are an interesting animal because they have such a long evolutionary history and they are so adapted to the environment,” said Skomal. “To me it is just a childhood dream come true to study these animals.”


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