Tagging Great White Sharks Off Cape Cod

Fishermen join scientists in world's largest shark research project

It was an historic moment in shark research when marine scientists and a crew of seven fishermen became the first to attach real-time satellite tags to two great white sharks in the North Atlantic.

The tagging on Sept. 13 in federal waters 3.2 miles off the coast of Cape Cod, involved chumming, hooking, and gently hand-reeling a 15-ft., 2,300 lbs. great white. The shark was led onto a wooden platform with metal sides, suspended off the 126-foot M.V. OCEARCH (pronounced “oh-search”). When the research platform was lifted hydraulically, the shark was high, but not necessarily dry.

Scientists, led by Dr. Greg Skomal of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, and Dr. Nick Whitney of MOTE Marine Laboratory, then had 15 minutes to take blood and tissue samples, and scrape off parasites for later study, while the shark’s mouth was irrigated with fresh seawater, and its head covered with a wet towel to calm it down.

The safe tagging of “Genie,” named for Eugenie “The Shark Lady” Clark, was the latest success in this five-year effort, considered the world’s largest shark research project, according to its charismatic leader, Chris Fischer, from Park City, UT.

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“Significant information is lacking with regard to the medium- and long-range movement of white sharks," says the 43-year-old adventurer, whose friends call him "Fisch." "Gaining this previously unattainable information about these apex predators enables more effective shark and ocean conservation—and protection of human life.”

He continues, “Shark populations worldwide are under threat. Sharks are being slaughtered at an unsustainable rate, many for a bowl of soup.”

Adds Skomal, “We’ve never had this kind of access to great whites before.”

There’s a reason no one else in the world is studying sharks in this manner.

The mere process of attracting a shark off Cape Cod consumes gallons of chum, and many days hunting, followed by 15 minutes of sheer terror as the team tries to safely attach a SPOT satellite transmitter, acoustic transmitter, and accelerometer to its dorsal fin.

A VideoRay ROV (remotely operated vehicle) about the size of a footstool connected to a 380-ft. cable, is placed in the water as the shark is about to be released, to ensure that it hasn’t been harmed in the tagging process.

Once released, the general public, including schoolchildren nationwide, track the shark in real time using a Global Shark Tracker on the nonprofit research organization’s website, www.OCEARCH.org, along with 35 other sharks the OCEARCH ship has tagged.

During Expedition News's visit in mid-September, the team had just received national exposure from "CBS This Morning" and the Associated Press. The group was elated Sept. 17, the night before the expedition went on hiatus, when it safely captured and tagged a second great white off Cape Cod, another female, this one named Mary Lee, in honor of Fischer’s mother.

Lying there on the platform, with Brett McBride, the ship’s captain standing barefoot just a few feet away (above), the shark looked almost like a caricature drawn by a Disney cartoonist. Looks, of course, are deceiving as this ominous 16-foot, 3,500-pound creature was seemingly all razor-sharp teeth and powerful tail, a full 10 feet in circumference.

Within 15 minutes, Mary Lee was fitted with a SPOT satellite transmitter, acoustic transmitter and accelerometer. A few days later, she was located pinging away, well beyond the coast of Cape Cod.

For this expedition, and the previous 14 shark research trips, the team depends upon sponsorship from companies such as CAT, COSTA and Yamaha to fund the $2 million it takes to tag sharks over a period of 80 days.

The Explorers Club Flag 95 flies proudly on the forward mast of the former crabbing vessel, although after six expeditions aboard the OCEARCH, it's looking a bit worse for wear. Fischer, a member of the Club along with Skomal, jokes, “The flag represents tenacity, courage and endurance. If it comes back looking too pretty, people might think we probably weren’t exploring hard enough.”

For more information, visit ocearch.org.

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