Discovering the secrets of great white sharks isn't easy — but this team is up to the challenge
Chris Fischer and his Ocearch team are out to map the secret life of the great white shark. But they have to buck the system, and find the babies, to do it
The seas off Montauk, New York, last August were dark and velvety calm except for a ripply cloud moving towards us—evidence of a 40-foot tower of baitfish. Underneath that pod, if we were lucky, lurked a baby great white shark. We were aboard a 126-foot research vessel for Ocearch, an outside-the-box marine conservation effort led by Chris Fischer. He and his team were attempting to unlock the mystery of where baby great whites are born, and how they begin their lives. “When they get big, they are the balance keepers, culling the weak, keeping the system strong,” Fischer said. “So for our grandchildren, we need these baby sharks out here.”
As the baitfish drifted by, we hooked something strong below. After a quick but intense fight, captain Brett McBride hauled a chubby four-foot great white onto a platform on the side of the ship and a pit-crew-like team of researchers went to work, pumping water across its gills, drawing blood and bolting a spot tag to its dorsal fin. If all goes according to plan, the tag will ping location data to a satellite every time the shark surfaces during the next five years, leaving a breadcrumb trail of his travels, a map of his life.
Once the researchers were done, McBride lowered the platform and the pup, named Gurney, swam off. As he disappeared, Fischer offered a sort of Thanksgiving prayer.
“I feel eternally grateful to the ocean for providing all of us that opportunity. She didn’t have to. That’s really amazing. That’s a gift.” Fischer is not a scientist; he’s more of a marketing guy who’s obsessed with the ocean. When he’s on a roll, he comes off as a sun-weathered preacher man—and what he’s selling, if you’re buying, is the future of the planet. The great white is just a charismatic way to do it.
“When great whites get big, they are the balance keepers. For our grandchildren, we need these baby sharks out here.”
Though Fischer and his team have tagged dozens of massive great whites—up to 16 feet and 4,000 pounds—this yearling, a mere 61 pounds, represented an important enigma: Find the nursery, and you protect the source. The search started with Tobey Curtis, a fisheries management specialist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who long suspected there was a great white nursery in the New York Bight (nearshore waters from New Jersey to the eastern tip of Long Island). He couldn’t prove it without money and a boat.
Enter Ocearch, with their vessel, their big-time corporate sponsors wrangled by Fischer, and funding for $30,000 worth of spot tags. The only caveat to partnering with Ocearch was that Curtis had to share his data freely with other scientists. For Curtis, it was a marked departure from the normal method of doing solo, cloistered, grant-driven science, but it was also a win.
This month, it’s been a year since Gurney was tagged, with Curtis and Ocearch tallying 20 juvenile great whites. “It’s the first time we’ve been able to get an understanding of the movements of these little guys,” says Curtis. “We had no idea where they went. Now, we can connect those dots.” It turns out that Gurney and other pups orbit near Montauk into fall, then head south to Carolina waters, returning to Long Island in spring.
But why? Curtis and Fischer have some ideas. The Bight is warm and ripe with food such as squid, menhaden and skate, and perhaps most crucially, nothing is going to gobble the pups up. A six-foot yearling would make a nifty meal for an adult, but recent tagging indicates that mature great whites don’t spend much time off Long Island. “So, the New York Bight is a refuge,” says Curtis.
“How about that lifestyle? They mate in Nantucket and birth in the Hamptons.”
Though some in the marine science community disapprove of Ocearch’s practice of pulling sharks onto a platform, claiming it’s tough on the fish, Curtis is a fan. “Without them, it would have taken us several years to achieve that sample size. It accelerated our ability to collect the data.” It also allows for the bolting of the crucial spot tags—a difficult task when dragging a shark alongside the boat. Curtis’ pups are now swimming freely, each one telling a story, a strand that will help fill in the larger mystery of the great white, and as Fischer sees it, save the ocean.
Ocearch’s most famous shark is Mary Lee, a 16-foot leviathan captured off Cape Cod in 2012. In the nearly five years her tag worked (it stopped pinging in June of last year), Mary Lee traveled close to 40,000 miles, cruising the continental shelf near Nova Scotia, then loitering around a group of 13,000-foot volcanic seamounts in middle-of-nowhere North Atlantic, zigzagging through the Bermuda Triangle, then heading back to her frequent haunts along the Gulf Stream between northern Florida and New York.
To Fischer, the most intriguing detail of Mary Lee’s travels was the timing of her visits to Cape Cod, and of her distinct visit to the sheltered waters near Montauk. Great whites have an 18-month gestation period and Mary Lee returned to Montauk in spring, 18 months after carousing in a well-documented aggregation area near the Cape. “Then we come in to Montauk in August, and we tag nine pups. We believe that the Cape Cod-Nantucket region is a mating site. We still need to prove that, but we believe it,” Fischer says. “How about that lifestyle? They mate in Nantucket and birth in the Hamptons.”
Fischer’s looking ahead, noting a surprising trend in some of the big breeders they’ve tagged. “There’s something going on up in Canadian waters,” he says with a glint in his eye. Fourteen-foot Katharine, 14-foot Lydia and a 12-foot male, Hilton, have spent a curious amount of time in areas off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. “Our tagging in the Atlantic totally upended the idea that sharks leave when the water gets cold,” Fischer says. “These bigger animals that can eat seals, they can stay in 40-degree water.”
There’s a certain logic to it: The warm Gulf Stream slices against frigid arctic currents along the continental shelf, delivering a buffet of seals, tuna, swordfish, even dead whales. But Fischer suspects there may be another breeding ground up there, and Ocearch’s next expedition will be in Canadian waters, if they can secure permits. Scientists still need bigger sample sizes and Fischer seems to relish the mission. Mary Lee swam around for five years, often within a few hundred yards of beaches, and no one saw her, a 16-foot ghost. Knowing that, it seems Fischer won’t run out of mysteries to chase anytime soon. As for Gurney, he pinged a few months ago off North Carolina, heading north.
One Shark, much science
With each pup, a team of researchers works rapidly to collect data on a range of scientific questions
Wound healing and new antibiotics
Great whites rarely get infections and heal very quickly. Biologists take a skin swab to study whether beneficial bacteria play a role in wound healing and to look for new sources of antibiotics for human use.
Blood samples go to both the New York Aquarium for health status, and to a fish nutritionist at the Georgia Aquarium for fatty analysis, revealing the shark’s diet.
Parasites and DNA
Parasite samples can indicate where the shark has traveled before tagging, while fin clips are used for DNA analysis at the Florida Museum of Natural History.
The spot tag bolted to the dorsal fin will last five years and ping to a satellite each time the fish surfaces, leaving a trail for scientists to analyze.