Juan Valencia drops a handful of Atlantic herring into a bucket, mashes it with a shovel and heaves it into the steely-grey ocean. The lopped-off tail of a tuna dangles from a line below.
Another batch of herring goes into the water. He watches as it dissolves into a flat slick on the surface. The sky hangs low, a curtain that obscures time and place.
For the past four years Mr. Valencia has served as a deckhand aboard the research vessel M/V OCEARCH — its 126 feet his only home and caravan to far-flung corners of the world. But home is where the sharks are. So today, home is anchored near Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge, off the coast of Chatham.
The largest white shark study in United States history is underway.
In the past, shark sightings in these waters were rare. But thanks to a rebounding grey seal population, the white sharks have returned to the area to feed, says Dr. Greg Skomal, Ph.D., a shark expert with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. Today, the waters off Cape Cod are the most reliable spot along the Eastern Seaboard to locate and study the animals, he says.
And the crew — a team of nearly 20 expert fishermen and scientists from around the country — is ready. For the past 30 days they have lived and fished aboard the M/V OCEARCH in hopes of capturing, examining and tagging live white sharks.
The expedition, which launched to media fanfare in late July and wrapped up last Friday, is part of a larger mission by OCEARCH to facilitate shark researchers and encourage shark conservation. Sharks are apex predators, critical to maintaining the balance of the ocean’s ecosystem, says OCEARCH expedition leader Chris Fischer. But millions of sharks are being killed each year for their fins. “We’re trading the future of our oceans for a bowl of soup,” he says.
To combat the problem, he’s traveled the globe offering scientists unprecedented access to study the animals in exchange for participation in a collaborative effort. Research is shared with a network of scientists, both on the ship and far afield. Data about the shark’s movements is uploaded in near real-time to the OCEARCH website. Short video clips of the expedition and interviews with crew members and scientists are released to the public for free.
The ship’s operating costs, estimated at $750,000 for the Cape Cod expedition, are footed by corporate sponsors. Chief among them is Caterpillar Inc. Scientists pay only for research and personal costs.
The goal of this unusual process, says Mr. Fischer, is to raise awareness of the plight of sharks and develop data to better protect them. To do so, he says, we must radically change the way shark research is done.
An enigmatic presence with a reality TV past, he exudes passion and has a flare for sound bites.
“Two hundred thousand sharks are finned each day,” he says, punching each word.
It’s a mantra he will repeat more than 10 times.
For the scientists onboard the M/V OCEARCH, however, the goal of the mission is more focused, if not ultimately alike.
Shark finning in these waters isn’t the foremost problem; it’s a lack of information. Scientists don’t know where white sharks in the Atlantic Ocean travel to, give birth and mate — or why. Long more difficult to reliably locate and research than in other parts of the world, the Atlantic white shark remains a mystery.
And with lack of information comes fear.
By studying white sharks alive, they say, scientists will be able to gain a clearer picture of their movements and behavior, which in turn could influence conservation efforts and public safety.
Change in Circumstance
White sharks (Carcharodon carcharias, better known as great whites) have long made their homes in these waters, says Dr. Skomal. Historical information going back to the 1800s shows that they were widely distributed from the Gulf of Mexico all the way to Canada. But until recently sightings were unreliable.
In 2004 that changed.
That year, a large white shark made its way into a salt pond on the Elizabeth Islands, where it remained trapped for the next two weeks. The incident confounded local experts and underscored the need for further study.
Since then, sightings and scientific research have increased.
In 2009 Dr. Skomal began renting vessels to harpoon tags onto white sharks. To date, he’s tagged more than 30. Receivers installed along the Cape Cod and Islands coastline allow him to determine when tagged sharks were swimming in the area, he says, giving him an indication of their movements.
But harpoon tagging only scrapes the surface of potentially available data — and it’s expensive. Dr. Skomal estimates that each harpooned tag costs up to $4,000.
“Fischer’s basically developing this new model where he gets corporate America or global corporations to finance the research so that he can support the scientists, the vessel, and then put it out to the world for free through web-based media and through the press,” says Dr. Skomal, standing on the edge of the vessel. In the distance, the Monomoy shoreline sparkles through the morning fog, tarnished gold and speckled black. Thousands of seals line the sand.
“It’s an interesting entrepreneurial model he’s developed where he provides this research platform to local scientists who then take it and use it as best they can,” he says. “And I seized upon the opportunity.”
“This boat costs me nothing, because of corporate sponsorship and the kindness of Fischer and the gang,” he says. “They’re all working for us as hard as they can.”
After initial talks with Dr. Skomal in 2010, the M/V OCEARCH crew arrived for a pilot expedition in September 2012 three miles off the coast of Chatham. The 13th day of that month, they made history. Genie, a 14-foot, 8-inch, 2,292-pound mature female white shark was reeled aboard the ship, making her the first white shark caught alive and tagged in Atlantic waters.
Four days later, they captured another massive shark: Mary Lee. She measured 16 feet and weighed in at 3,456 pounds.
Mr. Fischer called her the most historic fish they had ever captured. He named her after his mom.
Plans were made for a 2013 return trip, this time closer to shore, near a booming seal colony on Monomoy. The goal, Mr. Fischer announced at launch, was to tag 10 to 20 white sharks. But in the end, they’d fall far short of that goal. Just two additional sharks would be tagged: a 1,400-pound, 12-foot, seven-inch immature female named Betsy on August 13, and seven days later, a 2,300-pound, 14-foot, two-inch immature female named Katharine.
With the latest additions, it brings the total of number of white sharks tagged in the Atlantic Ocean to five, including one caught during an OCEARCH expedition in Jacksonville, Fla. last winter.
“In general, if you told me five years ago that we would have tagged what amounts to 36, 37 research sharks over the next five years, I would have been very incredulous,” says Dr. Skomal. “I would never have believed you, simply because these animals are very hard to locate. So I’m very happy from a broad perspective in terms of being able to achieve that level of tagging and level of study.”
“Specific to this expedition,” he says, “we’ve got samples from five sharks over the course of the last year. I’m very excited about that. Do I want more? Yeah, but it’s one shark at a time as far as I’m concerned. It’s fishing. It’s how expeditions go.”
Even with the lower than expected yield, the five sharks tagged by OCEARCH are adding to the overall knowledge of the species — and proving past theories false.
Prior to the OCEARCH expeditions in the Atlantic, white sharks were thought to travel north to the Cape Cod area in the summer to feed on seals, then return south in the winter. But Mary Lee made a surprise trip far off the coast of Boston in February, says Dr. Skomal. She then returned south, and has for several months been stationed near Georgia. Scientists don’t know what drew her north in the cold months.
Genie, by contrast, recently returned to the Monomoy area, just miles from where she was caught a year earlier.
On August 30, Katharine, one of two sharks tagged during the past month, pinged her location to a satellite just off Cape Pogue. Days earlier, Dr. Skomal had speculated that she would steer clear of Nantucket Sound, where the water was thought to be too warm.
Live One on the Line
The M/V OCEARCH is a sprawling vessel outfitted with the latest technology, including a 75,000-pound hydraulic lift and research lab. It’s the only vessel in the world capable of lifting a live adult white shark out of the water and tagging it.
But to study a shark, first you must catch one.
And in these murky, northern waters, it turns out that’s no easy feat.
The first step: a smaller boat is needed.
As day breaks over Chatham, a group of fishermen boards a Contender sport fishing model and heads toward the Monomoy shoreline, just yards from where a colony of gray seals laze and swim in the shallow water. They bait a two-foot hook, its barb sawed off. A seal decoy — basically a hollowed stuffed animal filled with fish guts — is towed behind the boat. And then the waiting begins.
When a shark takes the bait, the boat’s captain, Brett McBride, allows the shark to briefly run on the line. Large, heavy buoys are dropped into the water to add resistance. One wrong move and the line could wrap around his leg, bringing Captain McBride with it.
The shark subdued, the Contender “walks” it back to the main vessel, where the hydraulic lift is lowered into the water. Captain McBride jumps in front of the shark and guides it onto the platform, then lurches to the side over a protective gate. A hose attached to a PVC pipe is inserted into the shark’s mouth to keep water flowing through its gills. Its eyes are covered with a blanket, which the experts say helps to calm the shark.
Dr. Skomal and his team of scientists scurry onto the platform. They have 15 minutes to complete approximately 12 tests before the shark must be returned to the water. Too much time and things could go wrong. On a South African expedition in 2012, one shark died.
He makes a small incision in the shark’s abdomen and places an acoustic tag that can be read by local receivers. Marine biologist Heather Marshall takes a blood sample, used to determine the shark’s stress response to the tagging situation, as well as contaminants, vitamin and reproductive hormone levels.
OCEARCH’s tagging process has been criticized by some, who say it needlessly endangers or stresses the animals. But Dr. Skomal and Ms. Marshall say their research so far proves that’s not the case; the sharks quickly recover.
Once the blood has been collected, it will be spinned, frozen and shared with other scientists throughout the country. “It’s a hot commodity,” Dr. Skomal says.
Brenda Anderson, a nearly seven-month pregnant researcher from the University of North Florida, steps on the platform and takes a field sonogram to determine whether the shark is sexually mature. A fin clip is used for genetic analysis. Parasites will be removed and studied.
With the clock ticking, it’s time to attach the tags.
The scientists leave the deck as Capt. McBride positions the shark on its belly and Mr. Fischer screws a SPOT tag to the dorsal fin. The tag, designed to last five years, will record near real-time data of a shark’s location every time its fin breaks the surface. The information is then uploaded to OCEARCH’s website and mobile Shark Tracker application, which is available free to the public.
An accelerometer and pop-up satellite tag will track the shark’s movements, including depth, temperature and speed.
“All of these tags, in order to track the fine-scale shark movement, you have to have a shark that’s in front of you, hold it fairly still so you can securely attach this to the fin so that it’s actually tracking the movements of the shark’s body,” says Dr. Nick Whitney of the Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida. “And on a big great white shark there’s no way you’re going to actually do that unless you have a ship like this with a lift like this. This is the only ship I know of in the world that you can do this on a big great white shark.”
The tagging done, a muscle biopsy is taken to determine the shark’s eating habits. The hose and blanket are removed and the lift lowered back into the water. Capt. McBride nudges the shark back out to sea.
In 15 minutes, scientists obtain data that may take them years to analyze and turn into published papers.
At least that’s how it’s done in theory.
Shy, Wild Fish
Mid-afternoon on the M/V OCEARCH, fatigue is setting in. It’s been more than a week since the crew has spotted a shark and conditions aren’t looking good.
A thick fog hangs overhead, blending with the sea and obscuring sight of land.
The water, choppy and grey, gives little sight of what lurks beneath. Overhead, a chopper scans the shoreline — often an effective way of spotting the white sharks.
But not today.
“I wonder if they’re seeing anything there. I wonder if they’re seeing anything at all,” says Dr. Skomal, craning his head to watch the chopper’s route. “Very low ceiling, very low light, a lot of glare. Horrible conditions for this . . . I’m not sure how long they’re going to last today, because this is horrible conditions.”
When searching for a shark, visibility is key.
Less than 20 minutes later, the helicopter has stopped its patrol.
We won’t see a shark today unless it cruises by with its fin out of the water, he says.
The boat bobs some more.
The men aboard the Contender are experts in their field, experienced in catching large fish all over the world. Now in their 17th expedition, many of them have made names for themselves on reality television, including ESPN’s Offshore Adventures, National Geographic’s Shark Men and the History Channel’s Shark Wranglers, all of which focused on their cunning exploits at sea.
During the South African expedition, they tagged some 40 white sharks.
But here, they’ve caught just two. And now there’s no shark in sight.
Dr. Skomal says the low numbers are not indicative of a lack of white sharks in the area, but rather their behavior patterns, which appear to be different than in other areas. They’ve proven to be shy creatures, he says, wary of approaching ships and taking bait.
Mr. Fischer has a more colorful way of describing them: “Wild. Virgin,” he says.
“We’ve seen 20 sharks and gotten four bites. And only two of them stuck.”
In areas like Mexico and South Africa, where sharks are accustomed to cage diving and approaching ships, he says, they will bite a buoy with a hook in it.
“Everyone thinks a white shark comes in, just, aargh, it’s gonna eat me,” he says. “No way. It’s got to be absolutely the most perfect presentation, natural. And then you’re probably still only going to get about one of six of them to go.”
“That makes it entirely more difficult when you’re trying to capture them, ‘cause they’re super boat-shy, super nervous. I mean they are an untouched, virgin, un-monetized body of fish.”
Breaking the Model
Time passes slowly at sea, the day’s progression marked by the slow turning of the ship, offering occasional glimpses of shoreline from alternating sides.
On deck, a man sleeps in a prop chair, arms folded over his chest.
And yet there is bustle.
On this day, three large groups joined the crew, filled with journalists, sponsors and the occasional shark enthusiasts. The passengers are ferried from OCEARCH’s temporary headquarters at the Chatham Bars Inn and transported to the M/V OCEARCH via a 25 minute low-riding speedboat. Together they will spend the day exploring the ship, chatting with the crew and staving off sea sickness. Some drink beer and drop a line, reeling in dogfish. Others take jaunts to the coastline to watch the seals.
Nixie, a small rescue dog obtained by the crew from the Jacksonville Humane Society, entertains the crowd. A crew member straps a camera to her back as she bounds around the deck, looking for scraps. Last week, says Chris Berger, global brand director for OCEARCH, she stepped on a buoy and fell overboard. Her name, he says, is German for sea sprite. Today she’s in for a less death-defying form of exercise. Two children aboard the ship have brought a ball.
It’s a strange scene for a research vessel, even one with corporate branding adorning the walls.
That’s just how Mr. Fischer wants it.
“We’re really disruptive in our world,” he says. “We’re disrupting all these kind of old-boy approaches to these old institutional focused things.”
Mr. Fischer, who was born in Kentucky, is on a mission to influence science and education on a global scale. At the age of 29, his parents sold the family business he expected to take over, leaving him uncertain of his future. He decided to do the thing he was best at: go fishing.
Another thing he found out he was good at: making reality TV.
In 2009, Mr. Fischer took his tales of seafaring exploration to television, first with Shark Men on National Geographic, then Shark Wranglers on History. The shows featured the dangerous exploits of bringing a white shark on board, with scientists in tow to study their behavior. It also brought him a high profile.
But making television was limiting, he says. People saw him as a fishing jock, not someone involved in a serious conservation and scientific exploration effort. The producers wanted him to pick fights with his crew, and put limitations on who he was allowed to bring on board.
In 2012, the show was not renewed and he found himself once again facing an uncertain future.
“I’ve nearly lost the boat and my home several times,” he says, seated in the ship’s galley after another long, fruitless day.
So began an effort to rebrand OCEARCH and the way it both provides scientific access and delivers it to the general public — and to sustain profitability.
“Think of it as open source research, just like Google,” says Mr. Berger of OCEARCH’s current direction. “Google’s model is just give it away for free and build your scale.”
In recent years OCEARCH has launched a glossy website featuring the real-time shark tracker. And while the reality crew is gone, cameras remain. A crew stationed on board captures interviews with scientists, fishermen and deckhands, which are packaged into almost-daily 30-second clips. Longer, glossy five minute clips record shark tagging events. A blog is updated regularly.
In the coming weeks, says Mr. Berger, OCEARCH will unveil free STEM education curriculum for elementary schools across the country. Soon, they hope to spread the curriculum throughout the world.
Time will judge the merits of the mission. But so far, says Mr. Fischer, it seems to be working.
“It actually turned out that we were 10 times bigger by giving it away,” he says of their move away from television.
The emphasis on open access applies to scientists, too. Anyone is invited on board, he says, provided they are willing to share their information.
“We come in and we enable, and we say we’ll give you access that you’ve never had, but we have to invite all the smart people in your community, all the men and women from the leading institutions so that we can put together the most comprehensive set of studies from your community to help you with your sharks and explode your body of knowledge forward so you can make your public safety and your resources,” he says. “And we give it all away to them as long as they collaborate, and then we move on again and help the next group of people.”
Already five scientific papers have been published based on research conducted on an OCEARCH vessel. More than three dozen others are in the works.
“This is like social entrepreneurship at it’s finest. This is redefining brand as content and content distribution by leveraging the global media to do that,” he says, his words picking up speed.
“This is disruption of the institutional approach to science and the institutional approach to education. I mean, we’re giving away a world-class educational tool that is dynamic and integrated into the real-time tracking of white sharks, while all the Ph.D.s are seeing that information for the first time. It’s exploration in the now. It’s research in the now. It’s education in the now. It’s filmmaking in the now. We’re making films and shooting them out within days because everyone wants to see what happens on their phones in the now.”
Work Not Yet Done
The sun is setting low and a guest aboard the M/V OCEARCH is feeling uneasy. A relative of a friend of a sponsor, he’s traveled here from Chicago and he wants to see some sharks.
Earlier there was a fin spotted in the water, but it turned out to be a sunfish
He bats away talk of the weather, the opportunity to spend a day at sea. We didn’t see anything, he says and he’s ready to go home.
For the scientist and crew, however, there’s no such weariness — even after 30 days together on the ship. Even after it became apparent the sharks would not be steadily reeled in.
Dr. Skomal flits around, slapping backs, ribbing with the crew members. He offers words of encouragement to the researchers. Where he goes, a sense of excitement follows.
“Sko-dawg!” shouts Mr. Valencia. Dr. Skomal flashes a megawatt grin. “I must go to my people,” he says and exits the scene.
Nixie the sea dog scampers across the deck.
Out here in the blurry waters off Chatham, they’re not telling the story of the big fish that got away; they’re trumpeting the massive, ongoing effort to study whatever fish that they can.
In September, says Dr. Skomal, he’ll go back to harpoon-tagging sharks in hopes of tracking several additional white sharks. The work will be easier, and the numbers of sharks spotted higher since they need not be caught and taken aboard. But genetics studies and blood work will fall off the table, he says. The SPOT tags and accelerometry will be gone too.
Still, it will allow him to collect at least some degree of information. And in the scientific world, in the quest to learn more about the Atlantic white shark, that’s what it’s all about.
“There’s a tremendous amount of effort that goes into this and commitments on the part of the science team. And if we can get it, if we can get 10 samples, great. If we get two, great,” he says of OCEARCH’s Cape Cod expedition. “Sample size is what it’s all about in the scientific world. Trying to achieve that is kind of hard. We were very optimistic coming into this. We still are — we’ve got a couple days left. But we’ll figure out other ways to get done what we need to get done.”
Meanwhile, work aboard the M/V OCEARCH remains.
At the back of the boat Mr. Valencia is still chumming. He flips the radio on, then off. Stands up, retakes his seat.
He’s seen plenty of sharks from his perch on the back deck, he says. Sometimes they come right up to the edge, their nose and teeth rising out of the water.
But not here in these waters, where the sharks are wild and shy. The ocean is still quiet, the fog still a heavy shroud.
“Its slow out here,” he says, reflecting on previous expeditions to other blue corners of the world. “But it’s important, ya know? No one’s ever done this on this side.
“Everywhere we’ve gone, nobody’s ever done this. Skomal’s happy with what we’re doing, and we’ve caught two already. It’s better than nothing. We’d like to catch more, but all we can do is try.”