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An Education in Shark Tagging

Every think of learning to tag a shark? Or hang tracking gear onto the wings of a sting ray? Learn how young people learn.

Our names are Alek and Kyle Mouly and we are sophomores at MAST Academy, a school located on Key Biscayne, just east of Miami. Alek is the vice president of MAST’s Ocean Conservation Club, and Kyle is the master at arms. We also volunteer on a regular basis for the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation and have been doing so for about a year. So it’s safe to say that we have had an interest in marine science for a very long time.

When our club sponsor, Ms. Walker, announced one day that we would have the opportunity to go shark tagging as a field trip, the whole club was overcome with excitement; the signup sheet was filled within minutes. We barely managed to guarantee spots on the list. A few weeks later, we found ourselves driving to the Keys, where we would soon board a large and specialized boat for the research trip.

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The boat was similar to other large fishing vessels, equipped with a fully functional kitchen and bunk beds inside. The captain’s control center rested atop the second floor, with a 360° view of the open waters. But what made it different from other boats we’d been on was the large plastic platform jutting out of the stern. Submerged in about two feet of seawater, the platform serves as a “bed” for sharks while they are being examined. Next to the platform was a large white pump used to flush seawater out of the shark’s mouth and over its gills, as well as to give the shark a little something to chew on while data is collected.

Sitting on the bow of the boat with our friends, we sped out from the harbor into deeper waters. The familiar feeling of sea spray stinging our face was welcoming and reminded us of our recent snorkeling trip. Fifteen minutes into our excursion, the water beneath us turned from aqua to a richer hue of blue, and we could no longer see sea grass or the sandy bottom sweeping by beneath us. The boat slowed down, and nearly came to a stop, when the first mate told us all to meet inside.

Everyone gathered inside the boat where we were shown a brief presentation about the equipment on the boat. The method for catching the sharks was to drop lines attached to heavy weights into the water. At the base of these weights was a circular ring with very strong fishing line. The circular ring allows a hooked shark to continue to swim in circles so that water can still move over its gills. The hooks we used were massive circle hooks. The point on these hooks is slightly indented, which helps to prevent the shark from swallowing the hook and potentially damage its internal organs.

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The incredible photos used in this article were all done by Christine Shepard

After being split into groups of five, we were each assigned a certain job for when the shark was reeled in. Kyle was assigned the first job of taking a syringe and spraying seawater into the shark’s eye. He had to be careful to look for a secondary eyelid used to protect the eye from fast flowing water. Seeing the eyelid was good because it meant that the shark was not stressed, while the lack of one meant that the shark was extremely stressed.

After being split into groups of five, we were each assigned a certain job for when the shark was reeled in. Kyle was assigned the first job of taking a syringe and spraying seawater into the shark’s eye. He had to be careful to look for a secondary eyelid used to protect the eye from fast flowing water. Seeing the eyelid was good because it meant that the shark was not stressed, while the lack of one meant that the shark was extremely stressed.Alek was charged with measuring the shark’s pre-caudal length, fork length and total length, while another team member used scissors to snip off a small portion of the shark’s dorsal fin. After this, a sharp, scalpel-like object would be used to gather a small muscle tissue sample. Finally, someone would attach the actual tag to the shark. There are two types of tags: a SPOT tag transmits a signal to a satellite indicating the shark’s location whenever it reaches the surface; a PAT tag is attached to the shark and will remain there for a specific amount of time and will eventually fall off and float to the surface. Once detached, the PAT tag transmits a signal to a satellite with the shark’s location, and other information, which is then sent to the researchers. Applying these tags and collecting all this data on sharks is important because you can’t help protect what you don’t fully understand.

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After all that, you must be wondering if we caught anything. Well, it just so happens that we did. In total, we caught three blacktip sharks, all of which were female, and one nurse shark. All three blacktips were healthy. We didn’t really have much trouble with them, allowing the procedure to be done extremely swiftly. In addition, we also caught a nurse shark, which, sadly, we were not able to bring on board because the platform was too high, causing the shark to spit out the hook and proudly swim away.

The last thing we caught was, to everyone’s surprise, a loggerhead sea turtle. This was surprising because the way the hook and the traps are designed, it is extremely unlikely for a sea turtle, or anything but a shark for that matter, to get caught. So when we brought up the loggerhead, everyone was amazed. Since we obviously couldn’t bring it up to the platform, we had to cut the line, but it still was a fantastic sight to see and something that, according to the UM students, only happens about once every two years. After this remarkable event, we headed back to the dock, putting an end to an exciting, seven-hour expedition.

The thrill and experience that you get when shark tagging has no equal. Not only did we learn a lot about sharks through this experience, but we also gained a newfound respect and appreciation for these stunning animals. Shark tagging is an experience that we would easily recommend to anybody, as it really opens your eyes to the beauty and majesty of these amazing animals with whom we share our oceans. And, truth be told, you can watch all the shark documentaries in the world, but there is nothing like seeing the real thing.

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The University of Miami’s RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program advances ocean conservation and scientific literacy through cutting-edge scientific research and by providing innovative outreach opportunities for students through exhilarating, hands-on research and virtual learning experiences in marine biology. Opportunities are made available for students from land-locked communities and under-served populations in the sciences. For more information, visit www.rjd.miami.edu.

From the Team at TOF: Thanks to Fred Garth at Guy Harvey Magazine for this excellent article.



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