Burns not bites – not what I expected from my first experience handling sharks. Turns out that shark skin is like sandpaper. My raw arm was the real source of discomfort, not the rows of sharp smiling teeth.
Earlier this month, I represented Coral Vita on the first leg of Beneath the Waves’ (BTW) shark tagging expedition out of Nassau. BTW is a non-profit that uses cutting-edge scientific research on threatened marine species to conserve, protect, and restore the health of our oceans.
So why shark tagging in the Bahamas? The Bahamas were one of the first countries to ban long-ling fishing to protect sharks in 1993 and became one of the first countries in the world to declare their entire territorial waters as a shark sanctuary in 2011. That’s why BTW co-founder Dr. Austin Gallagher and his wife Dr. Erica Staaterman were so fired up for this research trip. Their fieldwork can help policymakers better understand the effect shark sanctuaries have on oceanic health, which in turn can have tremendously positive impacts on economic development through tourism and fisheries production.
There was another reason to be excited for this trip: the 43-meter megayacht Marcato. Normally, scientists bootstrap field expeditions through any means possible. Typically, this means day trips from shore on small boats with cheese sandwiches. It ain’t no thang to grin and bear it – it’s part of the job. But limited global funding for critical scientific projects can severely limit the ability for researchers to actually do the job.
That’s why we were all incredibly grateful to have the support of the International SeaKeepers Society. Recognizing this problem, the SeaKeepers teams up with yacht owners to lend their vessels in order to promote oceanographic research, conservation, and education to advance marine sciences and raise awareness about global ocean issues. Hence why we all got to live and work aboard a rarefied ship for scientists and entrepreneurs used to the barebones.
Using the Marcato as a mobile floating lab offered an unparalleled boon to the expedition. BTW was able to assemble an exceptional team of shark scientists, ocean advocacy leaders, digital media experts, and skilled technologists for a rich and successful research experience. Beyond that though, every person there was just simply awesome. With the help of Captain Jason Halvorsen and the generous Marcato crew, BTW tagged and released 30 sharks from six species over the four-day trip: tiger, bull, Caribbean reef, lemon, blacknose, and nurse. Over 200 tissue samples were taken to analyze the health and traits of shark species, many of which were equipped with acoustic transmitters that will help scientists analyze their behavior for years to come. And Dr. Brennan Phillips, another member of our team, recorded 40 hours of deep sea footage (over 1000 meters) exploring the depths of the ‘Tongue of the Ocean’ for the first time.
Austin did an amazing job of leading his team. After deploying bait buoys in the morning, we’d circle back to see if we’d landed any. When we did, everyone sprang into action like we’d be doing it together for years, even though for many (including me) it was my first shark tagging experience ever. Our three shark scientists of Austin, Ollie, and Mo would pin the shark to the side of the boat once it was reeled in, often grabbing its thrashing muscle-bound tail in order to secure it with ropes and ties for the safety of both the shark and all of us. Calls for different tools would be shouted out: “Tape measure! Syringe! Scalpel! The tracker, quickly!!” That’s where Katie, Tony, and I would usually get involved. It was critical to do things right and at speed, a careful balance for a bunch of noobs, to ensure the shark was able to be released as quickly as possible.
Thanks to the top-shelf training from Erica, we worked like pros. As we collected the data and samples the experts were shouting and handing out, the other A Team got to work. With the shark gawping their munchers and rubbing down the skin on everyone’s arms, Diego, Sami, and James (of our friends at Oceanic Global) were hopping in the water with their cameras. Part of the brilliance of BTW’s work is not just executing sound science but sharing stories with a broad audience. Thanks to the media team’s work (and courage), so many people can get a sense of the majesty of sharks and the incredible experiences we all had on this trip. It’s a memory I’ll cherish forever, and I can’t wait to mount up for the next journey with Beneath the Waves.
To learn more about their efforts, visit www.beneaththewaves.org.