The demands of researching some of the most deadly predators in the world are definitely intense, but there’s a lot of fun and excitement too. And so, here are my personal Top 5 Favorite Shark Research Jobs:
With shark dissection, we really get down, dirty and smelly. And specific. The hundreds of ways to measure a shark for classification require a close, meticulous eye.
We measure everything from body length and size of the fins, to the distance between the nostril, between the eyes and even the between gill slits. Doing that not only has given me a good understanding of shark anatomy, it’s given me a chance to look down the jaws of a shark without fear of being bitten.
As one of the only hands-on research institutes, Oceans also takes DNA samples from the shark’s skin, liver and spine, which are sent to labs all over the world.
The smell of the dissection room is an acquired taste for sure: the heavy odor of formaldehyde mixed with the smell of a shark's partially digested stomach contents. But … so much useful data has to cost something.
Acoustic tracking is long, hard work, but we get to see exactly where a shark hangs out all day. It turns out that most sharks, when not hunting around Seal Island in Mossel Bay, cruise relatively slowly up and down the coast, particularly near river mouths. They’re trying to catch the higher oxygen content in the water near the coast and river mouths from the constantly breaking waves that work oxygen into the water. Sharks also swim as close as 20 feet away from shore on a regular basis!
The nitty gritty of acoustic tracking is this: we find and tag a great white shark with a hydrophone — a beacon that emits high-frequency beeps. Then we follow the shark around the bay day and night. Several teams of interns and staff cycle through rotating shifts to
allow for 24/7 tracking. Oceans has the world record for the longest shark track at 107 hours straight!
Tracking skills are key here, and let me tell you that there is definitely some unexpected skills involved. We have to be very careful not to lose the shark with the hydrophone, of course. But there are also the boat-to-boat transfers in pitch darkness with 15-foot swells and bathroom breaks with four other people in close proximity. All in all, shark tracking is a grueling and rigorous job, but it’s all in the name of great white conservation.
Most of the jobs on aquarium duty put me in direct contact with a variety of shark species, so one of the first things I learned was how to handle sharks with my bare hands. It always seems a little counterintuitive to me to stick a bare hand into tank with a half dozen sharks in it, but I learned fast how to manage and control the sharks.
Sharks are, for the most part, very docile. Their skin, which is like sandpaper, makes for an easy grip. And there IS a way to calm a shark: Shark noses are packed with nerve endings and are very sensitive to touch, so by gently rubbing its nose and covering its eyes you can effectively calm a shark who has become stressed.
The scary thing about their noses is that they’re as right next to their mouths. The benthic species may have tiny little teeth, but I promise you that you don’t want to let their jaws close on a finger.
Being able to handle the sharks makes cleaning tanks and feeding the fish, diving in the palegic tank to feed the smoothhound shark, or collecting egg purses in the benthic tank, a little easier.
Shark fishing is just like deep sea fishing, but you don't have to pay to do it when you’re an intern! We go out to fish for specific specimens that researchers need for their experiments or for specimens to put on display at the local aquarium.
Our typical goal this trip has been to catch a smoothhound shark for the palegic tank at the aquarium, or a benthic shark species like leopards, pyjamas, and puff adders, to put on display and use in experiments at the aquarium.
But we are in Mossel Bay, with some of the most diverse marine wildlife around. You never know what your line will hook and the excitement of pulling up a hammerhead from the depths or seeing the rare silver St. Josephs fish is unparalleled.
If nothing is biting that day, then you can always just pop off your shirt, turn up the ipod and get your bronze on.
Chumming for sharks is the job every intern hopes they get. It means going out on the boat to get up close and personal with great white sharks.
We head out to any one of five sample sites along the coast of Mossel Bay, with the task of attract great white sharks to the boat with chum, then teasing the shark into sticking its dorsal fin out of the water. Each dorsal fin’s scarring, grooves and pigmentation works like a fingerprint for the shark. The team photographs the fin and adds it to the database of identified sharks.
Oceans is trying to identify as many sharks as possible for population studies — not as easy as it sounds. It requires a practiced hand on the bait rope to lure the sharks close to the boat and then up out of the water.
The first time I saw a great white go after the bait, with its rows of teeth and cascades of water showering around me, I was terrified. But in a good way. The awesome power that’s packed into these animals is astounding, but what is even more exciting to see is their behavior. When they’re not trying to steal our bait off the line, they’re actually very curious. They spend a lot of time trying to taste our motors and peer over the edge of the boat to get a glimpse of what’s inside – ie, us — which can be a little scary, particularly when those great whites are over 13 feet long, like they were the other day.
There are such a variety of jobs for interns at Oceans Research Institute, you're almost guaranteed to witness some of the most amazing sights our planet has to offer. It’s not unusual to see whales breaching their massive bodies out of the water. I was lucky enough to witness a shark breach around Seal Island. Beautiful sunsets and sunrises over the African mountainscapes: A day in the life of a shark researcher is busy, but the rewards are once in a lifetime and always amazing.
Taylor Martin is an intern at Oceans Research Institute, one of the leading marine wildlife and oceanographic research institutes in the world, in Mossel Bay, South Africa. He's there to study some of the largest and most dangerous creatures to swim our oceans: Great White Sharks.
Photo: A great white shark circles the research boat in Mossel Bay.