Shark Chronicles 002 – Launch of the SAMPLA white shark research project

Shark Chronicles 002 – Launch of the SAMPLA white shark research project

Posted by Ryan Johnson, Stephen Swanson, Enrico Gennari & Toby Keswick on February 16, 2008

SAMPLA’s inaugural week has arrived and gone, leaving an air of excitement amongst SAMPLA’s team of scientists, photographers and explorers.

The launch of the SAMPLA’s white shark research project at Mossel Bay promises a new era of South African marine research, not least because it focuses on the world most enigmatic and awe inspiring marine predator, the great white shark.

Mossel Bay’s topography, coupled with high densities of white sharks, ensure that it is an unparalleled destination for white shark research. Mossel Bay’s conspicuous peninsula juts south into the ocean, shielding the bay from the continuous swells from the south-west generated by powerful cold fronts. The protection from swells afforded by the peninsular allows research on the white shark to progress, often in spite of weather conditions that have made the South African Cape infamous with seafarers for centuries. It is no coincidence that Mossel Bay is SAMPLA’s research station.

The SAMPLA team gathered last week, some returning from as far a field as Mauritius, and others arriving from their home countries, for the launch of SAMPLA’s research programme. The launch heralded a period of acclimatization as other than the odd trip for the collection of genetic samples, little research had transpired at Mossel Bay over the last few months. This lack of research activity left the SAMPLA team pondering many questions, the first of which concerned birth, death, emigration and immigration: What percentage of sharks encountered would be sharks identified by SAMPLA members over the preceding 7 years. To answer this question, we launched a research team to identify sharks throughout the bay. We traveled to prime habitats for the sharks identified by SAMPLA researchers from previous experience in Mossel Bay. We chose these areas (habitats) because they were prolific areas of white sharks aggregation, the large number of sharks gathering in these areas perhaps linked to one or more behaviours e.g. feeding, socializing, resting, or even breeding. Thankfully, the sharks showed fidelity to their identified habitats, soon after the introduction of the chum line in each location, the familiar dark shapes were nosing round the vessels.

Nostalgia in scientific research is not encouraged. Even if it was encouraged emotion, some may say it is debatable that creatures like the great white shark could engender nostalgia. Nostalgia it was, though, for the SAMPLA team when they recognized three individual that had been sighted on a number of occasions since 2001. The sharks did not appear reciprocate recognition or happiness. The tuna head on offer was the sharks’ prime focus, and the millions of years of evolution on their side, may suggest that nostalgia is Dead End Street, while the smell and potential capture of a chunk of fish is the way forward.

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