Anyone who has ever seen documentaries or TV shows such as “Shark Men” will understand where a fascination with large marine apex predators stems from – in this case the Great White Shark. For me that fascination has occurred since I was little. Having spent most of my life pursuing ways in which I can interact, preserve and educate people on the marine environment, I jumped at the chance to participate in a month long internship working with Great White sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) in South Africa. The best part it wouldn’t be the only shark I worked with!Oceans Research may be a research organisation you have heard about already. I was one of the fortunate ones to work there. They have several projects throughout South Africa and I was based at Mossel Bay, the Great White shark project. Carried out by various degree students from all over the world, the work we aided was gathering baseline data and data collection for master’s projects. Topics included population studies for the Great White sharks, mark and re-capture of benthic shark, cetacean surveys, CTD (conductivity, temperature and depth) profiles from around the bay, accelerometer studies, and either working within or collecting animals for the aquarium. I’m only going to talk about the chumming trips and the mark and re-capture study as these were the main studies that involved sharks.
Chumming tripChumming trips are the backbone of the white shark trips! Collectively, there are five people on one of the research boats spending 4 to 5 hours at sea waiting for the sharks to show up so they can be photographed. To increase the likelihood of sharks coming to the boat, chum is bucketed into the water. For those people wondering what chum is, it is an oily-fish mix usually produced from sardines that have been soaking in seawater and baking under the sun for the trip, fresh chum is used for every trip. Definitely not very nice smelling for us, but rings the dinner bell for the sharks loud and clear! On the boat, there are several jobs that are rotated around on different trips, keeping one job per trip. The jobs include: photography of the shark’s fins (to allow identification of individuals), chumming, data recorder, spotter (sitting at the highest point of the boat looking out for sharks) and bait roping (manning the rope that has the bait on it, preventing the sharks taking the bait). The most important job is the chumming as the odour corridor brings in the sharks, bearing in mind however that it is not the most glamorous! Irritatingly, if no sharks show up, you are likely to be the only one doing any work.Throughout my shark experience, I participated in a total of twelve chum trips, carrying out all the various jobs that go with the privilege and saw a large number of Great White sharks along with other species of elasmobranchs, penguins, jellyfish, as well as a lot of seals. The main reason that these trips are carried out is to obtain population information. This information includes: number of sharks at a location, sex, estimate of size any identifying marks on the body and fins (including whether any tags were present), also differences between left and right sides of an individual with black, white pigments, scars, etc being recorded. There is also the recording of samples taken for further analyses such as genetic studies or isotope samples. My first chumming trip was not only to carry out the population study, but also with the aim of tagging a 4-meter long individual for tracking (following the movement of the individual around the bay with a receiver). However, the sharks that showed up weren’t of the corrected size so no tracking occurred, but data collection for the fin database did.During the summer season, the African white sharks focus their diet on fish (tuna, etc), giving the seals a break during their breeding season. For the time of year, we were mostly seeing juveniles averaging about 3-meters in length. One of the unique features of the white shark and the family Lamnidae that they belong to, is that they can maintain an elevated body temperature compared to the surrounding water. This elevation in body temperature is one of the reasons why they can be found in temperate waters and also allows for huge bursts of speed when required. These bursts of speed allow the sharks to breach on their prey though this is not the only reason for breaching and it is not fully understood why they do this. We were warned that the chances of seeing a breach were rare and that it normally occurs during the seal season. However, I was lucky and got to see this incredible performance! The amount of power that these animals must have to be able to throw their whole body out of the water is impressive and can be seen from quite a distance away.Coming face to face with a Great white shark, unscientifically is, well, mind-blowing! Being close enough to see into their black eyes and watching as they roll back turning white just as they go for the bait or seeing them glide under the boat looking more like an underwater airplane than a fish -- it was almost indescribable. Yes, they were just over the side of the boat, within touchable distance, but it was emphasized not to touch them. Often, while being stood waiting for the sharks to turn up, you feel you are being teased as they slice through the odour corridor near and far, so all you will often see are the fins. When they are close to the boat more often than not they will swim by watching you and calculating whether to take the bait. If there is more than one shark present, they have to sort out the dominance issues of which female goes first, the bigger the female the higher up the ranking she belongs. They then take turns at the bait in their ranking order. Some of the individuals are regulars to the baiting system so they try and anticipate the movement of the rope often getting it wrong, but increasing photograph opportunities! This is more due to the interns not having a lot of experience and not pulling it away quick enough so it ended up in the shark’s mouth. These sharks are very inquisitive, powerful animals, not just the mindless killers everyone makes out to be. They calculate whether to attack; they don’t just simply attack.
Trap trips (Mark and recapture study)The trap trips that we carried out were to obtain baseline information on the endemic, benthic sharks. For this research project we used specially designed traps that were baited and sunk at three specific regions. They are left at these locations for a set period of time, usually about 30-40 minutes and then hauled to the surface to check the contents. This is repeated 3-4 times per trip per location. If sharks are present then they are measured, weighed, photographed and tagged before being released. Tags in males were placed on the left side of the dorsal fin, whereas tags in females were placed on the right side of the dorsal fin. Hopefully they will be re-captured and the same details will be recorded including the tag number rather than re-tagging. Studies like these are important as they allow the identification of individuals, detection of their movements and potentially allow growth rate data if the individuals are recaptured. Very little is known about these species so these studies add huge amounts of information.Sharks are often few and far between during trapping, we pulled up a lot of small fish and several common octopus. Getting those out of the trap was challenging, however they did all the work getting off the boat. On one of my trips the tags were misplaced, so the shark that was caught was collected for the aquarium. Trap trips were also used for releasing animals housed in the aquarium, as the livestock was only kept for three months at a time.Concluding my research adventure to Oceans Research, these experiences were the two main activities that involved sharks; there were many others that would include sharks often alive or dead which I haven’t written about, however the whole month was focused on shark research. The internship as a whole was an amazing, unforgettable experience that will stay with me forever. Not only did I get to experience a research situation, I got to experience several parts of Africa on weekend trips and meet animals that I may never get the chance to see ever again. Four weeks was not long enough to cover all the aspects of the research however, it was the only length of time I could spare from my work schedule. I’m very glad I participated and can now say that I have seen wild Great White sharks in very close proximity. With the plummet of all shark populations globally, being given the chance to see them in the wild is becoming a rare event. The only recommendation would be to reconsider going in December. It is the month that has the lowest number of shark sightings, but you aren’t told that before you get there!
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