I'm here at Oceans Research Institute, one of the leading marine wildlife and oceanographic research institutes in the world, in Mossel Bay, South Africa, to study some of the largest and most dangerous creatures to swim our oceans: Great White Sharks.
One of the projects at Oceans is identifying individual sharks around Mossel Bay. We're working just off Seal Island, which sits in Mossel Bay, home to a lot of (insane) surfers. I'm sure you've seen those pictures on Shark Week of Great Whites jumping out of the water to catch a seal, right? Those are taken at Seal Island, where a huge number of Cape Fur seals live. Great White Sharks love to eat seals and they come here in droves, so it's the perfect place to learn more about their numbers and behaviors.
To ID a shark requires a team of interns, each with a specific task: chumming, bait, data, photographing and spotting. As one of those interns, it's my job to help collect photographs for Oceans' Great White Shark database.
The chummer has the glamorous job of crushing up bait fish into a chum mash and then periodically pouring the foul-smelling mixture of fish guts into the water alongside the boat.
As the oils from the chum seep into the ocean around the boat, the baiter stands on a specialized mini-deck on the boat's stern between the engines and throws off a thick line baited with chunks of tuna.
Standing nearby are the data taker and photographer (ie: me). For every shark that comes near the boat, we take down information in addition to the photograph, like distinguishing markings and measurements of the shark, while the photographer waits for the precise moment that the dorsal fin breaks the surface.
The spotter stands on the bridge of the boat for a better angle to track the animals swimming around the boat. With everyone in place, all that's left to do is to sit and wait for a shark to catch our yummy, chummy scent.
As photographer on this trip, which took place on the best July 4th I've ever had, I perched next to the bait line and waited. When everything works smoothly we can spot a shark before it attacks the bait and the baiter can then pull the line about a foot away from the boat.
This brings the shark close enough to take a clear picture of its fin and see all the features needed for a complete data sheet.
In the moments when the spotter shouted out a shark sighting, the flood of excitement and adrenaline at being face to face with one of the world's largest predators made it hard to remember that I was there to do a job. The animals are way bigger than I expected and resembled mini-submarines as they explored our boat and bait.
Barely controlling my giddiness, I managed to raise my camera and snap some photos of the dorsal fin. Over the next four hours we saw four more 9- to 12-foot Great Whites and each time was as exciting, and as surreal, as the first.
That was just my first day out on the boat! I'll be here for the next two months and will be bringing you more scientific adventure from this amazing place.
Top Image: Chum ready to throw in the ocean
Image #2: Tuna bait
Image #3: An interested shark
Images: DCI/Taylor Martin