It was December…

It was December…

Posted by Brittany Wald on January 1, 2012

I had been interning at Oceans Research for five weeks the first time I saw a great white shark do a full breach.

It was December, summer time in South Africa, when the sharks are generally breaching much less often than they do during the winter months. This is because their favored prey, Cape fur seals, do not leave Seal Island as frequently at that time due to their mating patterns. The sharks do still have to eat, though, and this is why we can chum the waters of Mossel Bay to find them. Usually, we chum for great whites so that we can take photographs of their dorsal fins and collect data on several of their other characteristics. These include pigmentation, scarring, gender, and size. This is mainly done for population dynamics research, although on occasion there are other reasons.

On this cloudy Monday morning, we were hoping to attract a 1.5- or 4-meter shark. We would, of course, collect identification data on the sharks as we always do. However, our main objective was to tag a shark of an appropriate size so that we could track it during the coming week. We had attempted a tracking period during the previous month, but almost twenty-four hours after the tagging, the apparatus fell out and we lost the shark.

Nine great whites approached our vessel that Monday of my sixth week, but none were quite the right size. But just as the wind began to pick up and the swell began to rock the boat, our disappointment vanished in an instant. We were all focused on the back of the boat, where a shark had been repeatedly attacking the bait rope. All of a sudden, we heard a splash and saw a 3-meter shark leap completely out of the water. As it cleared the surface, I could swear time slowed down. None of the interns on the boat had ever seen a full breach before, and it was barely a meter from the starboard engine.

I screamed like a little girl.

Now if you take away the screaming, and leave only the awe-inspiring spectacle and open-mouthed stares of our crew, you capture the general feeling of working at Oceans Research. Great white sharks have been shrouded in myth and mystery for decades, and to catch a glimpse of one in the wild is as close as anyone ever gets to seeing them in all their glory. And even these sightings are rare—confined to shark cage diving and watching trips and research expeditions. That is what makes seeing one under the full light of the sun, and discovering the truth about them such an incredible experience.

Oceans Research has been painstakingly documenting great whites for years, working off skin samples, dorsal photographs, and tracking information. They have made breakthrough discoveries about their hunting habits, and about the effect humans can have on apex predators who dominate a world apart from ours. This science can bring the truth about great whites to light (ha ha), and is already well on its way. Oceans' tracking trips alone are the most extensive ever conducted, including two trips lasting over 100 hours straight each. Population dynamics research has been used to estimate the number of great whites there are in total in Mossel Bay, where they are within this area, and how they are linked to other populations outside of the bay. Research on conductivity, temperature and depth has been used to determine oxygen levels at different locations around the bay, and consequently, how these levels affect shark activity.

In a recent live showing, Oceans even conducted an experiment to demonstrate just how disinterested great whites really are in human flesh. Several divers, clad only in bikinis and flippers, swam with great whites and concluded their dive without a scratch. This kind of research is debunking sensationalist media which portrays great whites in a detrimental light, with deadly consequences. Over 100 million sharks are killed annually by humans. Shark fin soup and fear are the leading causes of this phenomenon. Oceans' researchers are out on the water nearly every day, figuring out how to eradicate the later and mitigate desire for the former, by inspiring a respect and appreciation for these 10-million-year-old creatures, whose extinction would be a travesty for a world whose balance is being thrown constantly into disarray by the ignorance and meddling of human beings.

But great whites are not the only marine fauna that are endangered by very little or inaccurate information. Oceans Research also does cetacean and pinniped surveys and maintains an aquarium full of benthic and pelagic sharks, as well as many other teleosts, cephalopods, and elasmbobranches native to the area. The surveys are used to record interactions of these creatures with each other as well as sharks, and to determine what kinds of effects man-made structures may have on their way of life—for example, how dolphin movements have changed as a result of the desalination plant's construction in the bay. Caring for the animals in the aquarium allows Oceans to figure out metabolic rates of the various marine life, and also rehabilitate injured ones. Experiments done there, as well as dissections and displays, also provide educational resources to local children (and adults). Oceans also organizes other activities for Mossel Bay's street children, such as food drives, trips to the aquarium, and treasure hunts. Many of these are done by interns' initiative. In December alone, one intern set up a weekly summer camp to help children interact with marine wildlife in a safe, fun, and educational environment, and another planned a Christmas end-of-the-year celebration for street children, with playground and circle games, candy, and kickball.

Another unique thing about Oceans Research is that it functions doubly as a training institute and research operation. For example, interns are given a special opportunity to learn breath-holding techniques from a world-renowned shark researcher, Ryan Johnson, in order to increase free-diving times. Human beings are much less intrusive organisms within a marine biome without wearing a ton of scuba gear, so it is possible to get much closer to the objects of study when free-diving. Thus, it this a very practical skill that comes in handy for aspiring marine biologists as well as people who just want to impress their friends back home. During trapping trips, interns get to practice their breath-holding skills by diving down into the reefs of Mossel Bay with chum bags in order to catch benthic sharks for our aquarium. Oceans' commitment to educating its interns, giving them a well-rounded background in marine research, is also demonstrated by the lectures that are given two or three times a week. Each primary investigator who is affiliated with Oceans gives a monthly lecture on their work to the interns, expanding their knowledge base and introducing them to the results of real field work in which they participate each day.

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