Tag Archives: oceanic whitetip

Happy Centennial!

Today we are set to capture and tag the 100th oceanic whitetip! We motored off, leaving the calm, aqua colored waters of the lagoon for the deep blue rolling waves of the sea. Excitement and anticipation compliment our morning coffee.

With 5 years of data coming in, the SEA Collaborative has already begun to answer important questions about the mysterious oceanic whitetip: Where do they go during the year? Do they come back? Did they get pregnant along the way? Are they having pups? How often?

It turns out that these sharks come back to the same place year after year. This especially holds true if they have round, swollen bellies: Cat Island seems to be a maternity ward for pregnant sharks!

Collecting data on a pregnant oceanic whitetip, including doing an ultrasound! Researcher Debbie Abercrombie maneuvering the shark. Photo by Andy Mann.
Collecting data on a pregnant oceanic whitetip, including doing an ultrasound! Researcher Debbie Abercrombie maneuvering the shark. Photo by Andy Mann.

But tagging sharks is not easy business.

Sometimes the hardest part isn’t their sheer size or razor sharp teeth, it’s finding them!  There were days when we just waited, waited, waited…and waited some more. The routine was the same: cut up dead fish into small chunks; tear the chunks of fish meat apart and toss them over, one at a time, into the choppy waves; scan the bright blue to the horizon for grey shadows; repeat. This part could get a bit monotonous, and, as the day went on and the hunks of fish baked in the sweltering Caribbean sun, quite stinky.  I loved every second.

Someone might take out a knife, jump overboard and “scrape” fish in the water, shredding it into the tiniest of flecks, ensuring the sea’s currents would carry the smell. Sometimes we would drag fishing lines behind the boat (called trolling), hoping to lure sharks up from the depths with promises of a freshly caught fish. Mid-day a huge sparkling yellow and blue trimmed mahi mahi snagged a line, bouncing out of the white spray of the waves, pulled feverishly by the boat. Out of nowhere, a shark emerged from the blue and snapped it in half! Within seconds, the fish and the shark were gone.

Some days, only the laughing gull following the boat would go home full, smirking and snatching hunks of fish not meant for its belly. Sometimes we saw a shark, but it wasn’t interested in our bait. Other days three oceanic whitetips would be swimming around the boat within minutes. This was not that kind of day.

We decide to take a break to fish for bait (and dinner, of course!).  Birds dive on the horizon. We are a couple hundred feet off the shelf break and reef. Lines get dropped in. Within minutes there is a bite on Joey’s line. The once-straight pole curls around towards its base, pointing at the water. Spinning feverishly on the reel, he quickly rolls it in, fighting with the fish on occasion by pulling back on the line ever so gently. The struggle is soon over. It’s a large strawberry grouper – this one’s dinner.

We head to a new location. The distant limestone cliffs of Cat Island are barley visible on the quiet horizon. The chum crate gets thrown over. It is full of fish heads, spines and tails. We began work on preparing today’s menu: frozen bonita with a side of leftover mahi heads. Today, Lucy was adding to the smorgasbord of delicacies by splashing in cups of bloody water from where the fish carcasses were kept. Sound delicious? It does it you are a shark. And that is why we are here after all.

There she was. Like magic. Our spirits rise. Appearing out of the blue as if she were next to the boat all along.

The thing is, once you see a shark, you have to hook it.  And, once you hook a shark then you have to catch it. Then the hard work starts. Including, once you collect your data, unhooking it.

A buoy gets tossed over the boat’s side. It has a line attached to it, with a hook on the other end in the shark’s mouth. She swims away freely and pulls the buoy fast through the water. This extra effort should tire her out and make her easier to tag. Quickly hopping into the small boat, passing over clunky equipment between the crests of big rolling waves, we head toward her.

Catching a shark.  Photo by Andy Mann.
Catching a shark. Photo by Andy Mann.

Tagging a shark requires being agile and deliberate. Most of all, it requires a deep respect for this animal. Jumping in and wrangling a shark will not make it sit quietly along side the boat. You need caution, experience and a lot of care.

The small boat is thoughtfully steered toward the shark: slowly maneuvering around, backing up, turning ever so slightly so the shark is facing the right direction. If she gets spooked, she will take off again. The boat follows the whim of the shark, not the other way around.

When she is secure along the side, the team hurriedly begins its work. The quicker this is done, the less stressed out the shark will be.

Measuring a shark.  Photo by Andy Mann.
Measuring a shark. Photo by Andy Mann.

The team moves about with beauty and precision, working quietly over the shark and each other. Taking exquisite care to not harm her or put themselves in danger. No nervous energy, just deliberate quick, detailed movements. Ready to pull back on a moment’s notice. Skill takes over. Read the shark, anticipate her movements, urges. Over the years, and after many scrapes and bruises, this is something the team understands. Feeling the edges of her belly tense up before she decides to flip up her tail and smack it into your side, burning the top of your thigh with her sandpaper-like skin. Or sensing her agitation and frustration before she rears up her head, swinging it around, just missing your hand.

You must trust your colleagues and trust yourself.

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Mark Bond putting an oceanic whitetip in “tonic” – a hypnotic state when they are rolled on their back. Photo by Andy Mann.

The workup usually takes less than 10 minutes.  We measure it, tag it, take a small skin sample, some blood, and do an ultrasound (yes, the same as pregnant women!), and send it on its way.

Often the sharks are in groups and its friends stick around while it is with the research team. They are usually able to catch one shark after the other, and even recapture the same sharks from one year to the next.

However, this one is alone, and she is special. Our 100th shark captured and tagged! The significance of the milestone seems to escape her as she swims hastily away, engulfed by the blue, never looking back.

Shark swimming away after getting tagged.  Photo by Andy Mann.
Oceanic whitetip under the boat. Photo by Andy Mann.
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Its all about that soup

It’s a strange thing that a regional appetite for soup on the other side of the world brings me and the SEA collaborative (Shark Ecosystem Assessment or SEAC) to the Bahamas to research some of the fiercest sharks in the ocean.

Sharks sit atop the ocean’s food chain and play critical roles in regulating balanced ocean environments. Similar to a wolf in Alaska preying on sick or weak caribou to keep the herd strong, sharks manage fish populations with marked precision. However, even these apex predators are vulnerable to human activities and are in peril throughout most of the world’s oceans.

Tens of millions of sharks are caught annually. This is largely a result of increasing demand for shark fin soup, a popular luxury dish in Asia that can fetch upwards of $100 per bowl. Whilst growing economic prosperity in China has led to increased demand for the dish once known as the ‘Emperor’s dish’, many species, including the oceanic whitetip, have become critically endangered.

Oceanic whitetip fin. Photo courtesy of Debbie Abercrombie.
Oceanic whitetip fin. Photo courtesy of Debbie Abercrombie.
Pile of shark fins. Photo courtesy of Debbie Abercrombie
Pile of shark fins. Photo courtesy of Debbie Abercrombie.

So why shark fins?

People are after thin collagen-like strips in the fin called ceratotrichia, similar in consistency to a fingernail. These strips look like folds in an accordion. Once dried and processed, they produce thin clear noodles that do not actually add any flavor to the soup, simply texture.

Shark fin and shark fin soup. Photo credit: Debbie Abercrombie
Shark fin and shark fin soup. Photo credit: Debbie Abercrombie

Each shark is harvested for just four fins: one on the top (the dorsal), 2 on the sides (paired pectoral), and the lower fork of their tail (lower caudal lobe). The lower tail is the most expensive because it has the most ceratotrichia versus cartilage content. Although it varies on the size and species of shark, each fin makes enough noodles for a cup or two of soup.

Think about the amount of sharks killed to serve each guest a bowl of soup at just one wedding!

Shark fins. Photo courtesy of Debbie Abercrombie.
Shark fins. Photo courtesy of Debbie Abercrombie.

Close encounters

Today I faced one of the most dangerous sharks in the ocean.

It was terrifying. It was absolutely beautiful.

And surreal.

I was above myself, watching a movie, not really there. She looked at me and I looked at her, our eyes locked. Suddenly she was real, she was there. So was I. I gasped through my snorkel. My heart raced. My mind flooded. Was I in the water with an oceanic whitetip? What was she thinking, feeling, wanting from this encounter? Was she really turning and swimming right toward me?

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Swimming with the sharks. Photo courtesy of Andy Mann at http://www.andymann.com.

We had run out of satellite tags for the day. Lucy Howey of Microwave Telemetry, Inc., one of the project founders, was flying in that afternoon with more tags. One of the primary goals of the research expedition is to monitor the movements and behavior of the endangered oceanic whitetip shark. These sharks can migrate over long distances throughout their lifetime, often crossing international and political boundaries. Yet political and ecological boundaries don’t often overlap. Protection efforts in one country can be overshadowed by destructive fishing practices in another. Understanding shark migration patterns across borders is crucial to their overall protection.

Although the oceanic whitetip is endangered, Cat Island remains one of the best places in the North Atlantic where these sharks can be found. It is a unique place with a steep ocean drop off on its eastern side – and one of the few places where whiteips congregate close to shore. In order to study the shark’s movements, behavior, and breeding grounds, the team fits oceanic whitetips with special pop-off satellite archival tags (PSAT’s). The PSAT stays attached to the shark for about a year, at which time it pops off and transmits the recorded data to a satellite. To date the team has put out over 100 satellite tags, with about 1/3 being recaptures. This gives them valuable information about how the shark have grown, where they breed, and where they have pups, and leads to more targeted and effective management practices.

A shark was circling the boat. Mark Bond and Andy Mann were in the water filming a lone female oceanic whitetip. They hopped out of the water at one point because they thought she was being aggressive – coming in fast toward them and poking the camera, circling around and then heading at them again. But, after a few minutes, they splashed into the water again to give it another try. She had calmed down a bit, or they relaxed, or most likely a little of both. After watching Mark and Andy and the shark circle each other for about 15 minutes, I finally worked up the courage to get in myself. I was terrified. This is the first time I’ve been in the water with a big shark.

The cool blue water consumed me. I tried to stay close to the boat in case I had to hop out fast. I quickly took my bearings and looked around me: there was Andy, there was Mark, and there was the shark. She was 20 feet away, looking at me with curious eyes. She swam down deep for a minute and then circled back, continuing to watch us.

Earlier in the day, I had asked John, a NOAA researcher on the trip, what he like most about these sharks. He said, “Their curiosity.” I now understood what he meant.

She glided smoothly straight toward me. Her eyes, almost thoughtful, checking me out as much as I was checking her out. I looked at her head on. I couldn’t see her body, just her grey oval face and white chin. She was silhouetted by the deep blue sea. Strings of light filtered through the water like a comb and slowly dissipated, overtaken by the dark blue from hundreds of feet below. There was nothing around us: just blue.

Oceanic whitetip swimming into the deep blue. Photo credit: Andy Mann
Oceanic whitetip swimming into the deep blue. Photo credit: Andy Mann

This was not my world, it was hers. She was so graceful and sleek; her movements were effortless. As I clumsily fumbled in the water, she almost laughed with her beady eyes that she never took off of me. I waved my arms to push back as she came closer, her body seemed perfectly still, yet she moved faster and with more precision than I ever could. I pushed backward, behind Mark, who had a stick to gently push her away if she got uncomfortably close.

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Christine O’Connell and Mark Bond in the water with an oceanic whitetip.
Christine O'Connell in the water with an oceanic whitetip.
Christine O’Connell and Mark Bond in the water with an oceanic whitetip.
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Christine O’Connell and Mark Bond in the water with an oceanic whitetip.

Her approach entranced me: wide set eyes set apart on the edges of her face, jaw slightly agape, stretching straight across her face with the ends of her mouth curving down a bit, touting a somber grin. She had an emotionless, blank, and surprisingly deliberate look – the kind of look that for a second puts you at ease, calming. There was no feeling behind it, good or bad. It makes you let your guard down for a moment, tricking you into thinking she wouldn’t hurt you if given the chance. This is her lure – her effortless quiet swim, her blank stare, as if she is saving every bit of energy for the exact moment she needs it, for that split second she attacks. She is efficient, fierce, strong. Oceanic whitetips are able to survive and thrive out in the vast open ocean because they are agile hunters and artful scavengers. But for today, for right now, she is our friend. Though, I wonder what would happen if we met under different circumstances…

I realized through my encounter with her what magnificent animals these sharks are and the importance of protecting them. This amazing team of researchers is doing important work.

Our story begins

Our story begins at the same time and place we left off last year, in the turquoise seas of the Bahamas for shark season. But, this time, we have new main character, the ocean whitetip shark.

Oceanic whitetips are one of the fiercest, yet most critically endangered, animals in the deep ocean. As an apex predator, their survival as a species is crucial to the overall health of our ocean environments. The scientific research team here is trying to better understand the behavior and life histories of these magnificent animals to help protect them from their most feared predators: people.

A year ago, I had the good fortune to spend a week with some of the team’s scientists, puttering around in lush green mangroves and blue-green mosaic waters of the Bahamas, tagging baby lemon sharks and bonnetheads. This year, I left the protection of these mangrove sanctuaries, a natural nursery for baby sharks, and ventured with the team into deeper blue waters off Cat Island in search of very grown-up, very large, very feared, yet very fragile, and VERY endangered oceanic whitetip sharks.

Oceanic whitetips are fast and efficient hunters that are most well known for killing hundreds of shipwrecked sailors during World War II after the USS Indianapolis was sunk by a Japanese submarine. The image of the infamous white spot on the tip of their dorsal fin emerging from the blue and slicing through the water floats through tales of the sea. It strikes fear in sailors and boaters alike. Yet, as I’ve come to learn over the past few days, these sharks are also mysterious, gentle, playful curious, and simply beautiful. I even came face to face with one in the water yesterday…but that is for another post.

Oceanic whitecap off Cat Island, Bahamas. Photo courtesy of Andy Mann.
Oceanic whitetip off Cat Island, Bahamas. Photo courtesy of Andy Mann.

Our team of scientists embarked on this project 5 years ago, and it has become one of the biggest shark research tagging expeditions ever! Scientists involved in the Bahamian shark research expedition are doing groundbreaking research on multiple shark species throughout the Bahamas, mapping migratory routes and trying to uncover the mysteries of where they give birth and mate. Their research is translating into conservation of these amazing animals worldwide, including listing the oceanic whitetip on CITES, the international treaty regulating trade of endangered animals like elephants and tigers.

This multi-institutional research partnership is a unique one that involves academia, government, non-profit and private industry, all cooperating to promote ocean science and conservation. Project partners include the Moore Charitable Foundation, Microwave Telemetry Inc., Save our Seas Foundation, Cape Eleuthera Institute, NOAA, University of North Florida and Stony Brook University. This year we are vey lucky to have professional adventure photographer and filmmaker, Andy Mann, on board to document the project (instagram @andy_mann, andymann.com, 3stringspro.com).