WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH, N.C. (WNCN) – An internationally recognized shark research group spent a week off the North Carolina coast in an effort to help local scientist better understand sand tiger sharks.
Sand tiger sharks are found in the western Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Maine to Argentina. They are known to congregate near the many shipwrecks along North Carolina. They have one of the lowest reproduction rates of all sharks. Despite their fierce appearance, sand tiger sharks are non-aggressive towards humans.
The North Carolina Aquariums teamed up with OCEARCH, a nonprofit dedicated to the apex predators of the sea, for an expedition to tag mature female sand tiger sharks in waters near Wrightsville Beach.
CBS North Carolina “tagged” along to see how it all works.
CBS North Carolina packed our gear into a small boat and hit the water with a group of researchers.
The boat was driven by OCEARCH founder and expedition leader Chris Fischer.
It was a bumpy but short ride a couple of miles off the coast to OCEARCH’s 126-foot vessel. It spent its early days in the Bering Sea as a crab boat but is now a ship of science.
This was its first time in North Carolina.
“North Carolina has an amazing coast,” said Fernada Ubatuba, COO at OCEARCH. “There’s a lot shark activity in this region and what’s unique is there hasn’t been many studies on those sharks.”
At the helm of the boat was Cpt. Mark Bowden.
Traveling the world, he hasn’t seen his home on land in 15 months.
“There are three or four of us who live on board permanently full time, so we’ve all got our bedrooms and bathrooms. We’ve got the galley down there. We’ve got a living room,” Bowden said while giving CBS North Carolina a tour.
Maneuvering inside the boat was a little tricky, but once we got our sea legs it was time to meet the local researchers. Meanwhile the fishing team set out to look for sharks.
“We know these sharks have been here for a long time but we don’t know exactly why,” explained Hap Fatzinger, director of the North Carolina Aquarium at Pink Knoll Shores. “They’re here year-round. So what is it that’s bringing these animals here? Why are they calling this area home? We’re trying to fit those puzzle pieces together.”
Other members of the science team were from Adventure Aquarium, Florida Aquarium, SeaWorld, Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, Georgia Aquarium and the South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction and Conservation.
“We’re trying to create the best level of care for the animals in the aquarium,” said Fatzinger. “We utilize these animals in our zoos and aquariums as ambassadors for their species in the wild.”
Each member of the science team has a different job and a different specialty. OCEARCH allows local scientist to do hands on research with sharks in the wild that they often don’t have access to.
“This is an incredible opportunity. Very few times do you have a vessel large enough with the capabilities and capacities to carry multiple scientist to do a wide range of procedures and experiments on these animals,” said Fatzinger.
But to do research, first they have to catch a shark.
And that’s what OCEARCH does best.
What sets the OCEARCH ship apart is the moving platform on board.
“It lifts up, slides right out over the side of the boat, drops down into the water, and creates essentially like an underwater corral,” Bowden explained. “We swing the shark into the corral where we can then lift the platform up and it beaches the shark on the deck.”
The sharks are only kept out of the water for about 15 minutes, just enough time for the research crew to collect samples and tag the shark’s fin with a GPS. The tag will “ping” revealing the sharks location when they swim towards the surface.
The team caught a total of five sharks off the North Carolina Coast. Two female Tiger sharks were given GPS tags – 8-foot, 164 pound Orlando and 9-foot, 304 pound Carolina.
With the OCEARCH global shark tracker, anyone can now follow shark migrations.
Users can track tagged Great White Sharks and other sharks across the globe. A few Great Whites can be tracked during their migration along North Carolina’s coast.
But the research is about much more than just seeing where sharks swim.
“We can’t protect them, we can’t conserve them until we know how they’re utilizing the habitat,” said Fatzinger. “Where they’re going and what is that critical space for them.”
Overall, shark populations are in critical decline. Scientists estimate 200,000 sharks die every day, largely from overfishing and destruction of their habitat.
“Sharks are the balance keepers of the ocean– they’re like the lions of the ocean if you like. And without the sharks, the whole food chain just doesn’t work how it should,” said Bowden.
“When you have an ocean full of abundance with sharks, the ecosystem is working and it’s working perfectly,” said Ubatuba.
As for CBS North Carolina’s trip, a fast moving storm pushed us back to the shore early. Heavy rain put the shark fishing on pause. But for the OCEARCH team, their real work is never done.
“We’re really just about changing the perception of how people see sharks to more of one of fascination and interest and wanting to protect them, rather than being afraid and wanting to kill them,” said Bowden.
OCEARCH is now planning their next expedition off the coast of New York.