Tooth and Nail
OCEARCH travels around the globe in pursuit of one of the ocean's most well-known yet least-studied apex predators.
On a bright, chilly October day off the eastern coast of Nova Scotia, 10 scientists gather around a 998-pound great white shark. They have 15 minutes to take measurements and samples before the shark will be released. They holler numbers to a woman wearing jeans, sneakers and a beanie, and holding a clipboard.
The woman is Fernanda Ubatuba, president and COO of OCEARCH, a non-profit that leverages partnerships with scientists, industry and citizens to pursue a host of scientific inquiries. Now in its 19th year, OCEARCH is best known for its interactive shark tracking website, where users can follow the path of a single shark or see an aggregated map of tagged sharks around the world.
It’s thanks to the shark tracker that the OCEARCH team knew there was a host of white sharks off the eastern coast of Nova Scotia last fall. So they followed their own data—from sharks tagged in previous years—to this spot at the mouth of the LaHave River, where they hoped to tag and study a handful of new sharks over the course of a 21-day expedition.
By the time I arrived on the second-to-last day, the team had caught and released eight sharks. (They had a permit from Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans to tag up to 20 sharks.) Everyone seemed content with this metric; after all, so little is known about white sharks that studying even eight has the potential to yield scientific breakthroughs.
It will be months—years, even—before papers utilizing data collected on that expedition will be published. But there were a few datapoints being analyzed in real time, and it was causing quite a stir on board M/V Ocearch, the 126-foot retired crabbing ship.
Chris Fischer, founder and CEO, wore work boots, fishing bibs and a winter jacket with a fur hood. He was making rounds sharing the good news: The sperm sample from the first shark of the day—the expedition’s ninth—was nearly 50 percent motile, which suggested the shark could be mating and therefore the population could be healthy and growing.
The other update came from Dr. Mike Hyatt, a veterinarian from the Wildlife Conservation Society. Using an ultrasound, he had successfully measured one of the world’s first white shark heart rates, at 8 beats per minute. Hyatt’s research examines stress levels in captured white sharks. He says a heartbeat as low as eight suggests the shark might be relatively calm during its 15-minute checkup, even while it is being prodded and measured by nearly a dozen sets of hands.
OCEARCH’s bi- or sometimes triannual expeditions are logistical feats of epic proportion. A group of scientists from disparate institutions—universities, aquariums, veterinary hospitals—gather on board the vessel, where they set up shop for three weeks. Each scientist has their own area of study—last fall’s expedition included 10 researchers on board and another 12 who were not present but received samples—researching everything from diet to hormones, genetics and microplastics.
The scientists were outfitted in a standard uniform on the day of my visit: deck boots, fishing bibs and hats. But Co-Captain and Ship Engineer Dave Stevenson wore flip flops, a windbreaker and shorts that revealed multiple leg tattoos. He said the hardest part of his job is making sure there is enough fresh water for everyone.
Then there were the fishermen, affectionately referred to by the scientists and the crew as “the boys.” Led by veteran fisherman Brett McBride, the boys—three hearty guys in their 20s and 30s with commercial fishing backgrounds—fish from sunup to sundown in a 28-foot Contender using fresh, local bait and heavy tackle.
When they hook up with a shark, they radio the mothership and begin slowly “walking” the shark to the ship. The shark doesn’t usually fight once it’s on the walk. Fischer calls this “learned helplessness,” when the shark realizes it’s better off conserving energy than fighting to exhaustion—or death—like a big game fish.
The radio call sparks the crew on the mothership to action. Each person prepares their instruments and stands at attention with their own vessel for carrying tools and vials: a fanny pack, a lunch box, and my favorite, a chalk bag made of sparkly shark fabric. Photographers ready their equipment. The large hydraulic lift is lowered into the 55-degree water. Photographer Robert Snow jumps in and keeps his eye on the Contender as it approaches.
Fischer swings the Contender parallel to the mothership. McBride, wearing jeans and a 7-mm wetsuit top (an outfit he has carefully curated through trial and error over the years), stands on the port gunwale and wraps the fishing line around his gloved left hand. When the boat reaches the flank of the hydraulic lift, McBride launches himself and lands in chest-deep water. He pulls the line furiously, closing the space between himself and the 20-year-old shark. In a few big movements, the shark is in the pen. McBride wrestles the thrashing hulk onto its side and yells “up!” The lift rises.
McBride, who is tanned and blonde with a white goatee, takes pride in outsmarting the shark. “It’s all about technique,” he says, claiming to always position himself out of harm’s way.
A mate hands McBride a seawater hose, which he puts in the shark’s mouth so it can breathe. They remove the hook and cover the shark’s eyes with a black towel to keep it calm.
The scientists jump over the rail of the lift exactly as they have done eight times in the past three weeks. In less than 10 seconds, numbers are being hollered to Ubatuba, who records them on the clipboard. Hyatt takes an ultrasound while Stony Brook University PhD candidate Lisa Crawford gathers a tissue sample and senior deckhand DJ Lettieri helps measure the tail fin. The crew occasionally bump into each other, but otherwise the operation seems well choreographed.
“Five minutes,” yells Fischer, who is supervising the insertion of the SPOT tag on the dorsal fin. He has the confidence and tenor of a CEO, yet he is intimately involved in every element of the expedition, even shuttling food and hot drinks to the boys while they’re fishing. Ubatuba is no different. “I’m the president but I also do the dishes,” she says.
In an instant, everyone except McBride jumps back over the rail. He removes the hose and stands behind the shark, breathing heavily with his jeans plastered to his legs, as the lift is lowered. The shark begins to wag its tail side to side, and then it is swimming away.
Academic science rewards those who publish. More papers beget more funding for more papers, and the cycle sprints on. “Publish or die,” one retired scientist told me. The exhausting cycle encourages scientists to hold their data closely, for fear that someone else might publish the same findings, sooner. PhD students toil away for years, knowing that their entire thesis could be wrecked in an instant if someone beats them to the paper.
OCEARCH is chipping away at this model by making its data available to other scientists after its researchers use it for their own papers. “This data will have life beyond these limited projects. It could be used in other ways to answer other questions down the road,” says Expedition Chief Scientist Lisa Hoops of the Georgia Aquarium. To date, 29 papers have been published by OCEARCH researchers representing 90 institutions; it’s unclear how many studies have used the OCEARCH datasets after they were made public.
This collaborative spirit has been at the heart of OCEARCH since its founding in 2001. Fischer, who grew up in Kentucky and has a degree in international business, was surprised to learn from a scientist friend that some billfish research was limited by scientists’ lack of access to boats. “They had no boats and no money,” Fischer recalls. “They couldn’t catch what they studied.” In the early 2000s, while filming the Emmy-Award-winning show Offshore Adventures for ESPN, Fischer began inviting billfish scientists on board to collect data.
A lifelong learner and a shrewd businessman, he began to wonder whether it was possible to “do business and do good” at the same time.
Nineteen years later, it seems he has delivered on that brief. OCEARCH’s mission is to “accelerate the ocean’s return to balance and abundance” by studying white sharks, one of the ocean’s most well-known yet least-studied apex predators. A non-profit “rooted in social entrepreneurship,” OCEARCH has seven corporate sponsors—YETI, Costa, Helly Hansen, Jefferson’s Bourbon, Southern Tide, Cisco Brewers and SeaWorld—in addition to one academic sponsor, Jacksonville University.
The expeditions are funded by direct support from the brands, and by co-branded products like sunglasses, shirts and beer. “Sponsors know that an abundant future is in their best shareholder interest,” Fischer says, positioning corporate funding as an antidote to the endless grant-writing cycle that pervades most research. The Nova Scotia expedition cost $600,000, or about $55,000 per shark.
The sponsor logos feature prominently on the hydraulic lift, which seems to be the most meticulously maintained part of the vessel; everywhere else on board, it looks like a working boat. The logos are in the background of nearly every photo of the 416 sharks studied to date.
One OCEARCH sponsor, SeaWorld, came under fire last year after reports surfaced about the alleged mistreatment of some animals. But Fischer stands by the partnership with the aquarium. “SeaWorld is the world leader in ocean science,” he says. “We’re proud to be their partner. They’ve helped us learn faster. They bring the ocean to peoples’ eyes who otherwise would never see it.”
OCEARCH has also been criticized recently for its methodology, which the organization says is state of the art. It is the first project to utilize a hydraulic lift to study sharks out of the water; most other research is performed by bringing a submerged shark alongside a boat. The lift allows OCEARCH to collect many more samples than the traditional method, and the organization says its procedures are “carefully crafted … to minimize stress and risk to the sharks.” OCEARCH says the entire process follows protocols in accordance with the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees of participating organizations.
But some scientists dispute that lifting a shark out of the water for 15 minutes could ever be considered safe. They worry that collecting samples using the OCEARCH method could cause long-term organ or reproductive damage. But OCEARCH has never caught the same shark twice, so there is no way to know how their health has changed over time.
Responding to these critiques, Fischer is quick on the offense. “The biggest threat to the future abundance of the ocean is some of the scientists,” who he says are trying to prevent a big, collaborative team from working in their regions, because they know OCEARCH will learn faster. Fischer claims that these scientists are spreading misinformation in the press to protect their research.
As soon as the shark is released back into the bay, three scientists hurry to a small, organized but worn lab at the bow. Hyatt processes blood samples while Hoops reviews the data collected by Ubatuba. Using the shark’s recorded length and estimated age, Hoops supposes this shark, which the team named Ironbound after a nearby island, weighed nearly 1,000 pounds.
Crawford ferries dozens of samples belowdecks to the freezers, and then begins labeling new vials for the next round of samples. “We want to freeze the metabolic process as quickly as we can after we’ve collected the samples so that we can capture whatever it is we’re trying to look at,” Hoops says. After the expedition, each scientist will process their samples in their respective labs.
The white shark is listed as endangered in Canada, but the OCEARCH team supposes there are far more than previously believed. With two Nova Scotia expeditions in their wake, the OCEARCH datasets are just becoming large enough for scientists to identify trends. Dan Madigan, a research associate from the University of Windsor in Ontario, says bigger datasets are needed to study potential shifts in white shark populations due to climate change, but it’s “very compelling.”
As the datasets grow, so does the buzz around OCEARCH’s work. The first Saturday after last fall’s Nova Scotia expedition, the team held three ship tours, three seminars and two STEM camps near Lunenburg. The events, which sold out within 40 minutes, were coordinated in partnership with local biologist Rick Welsford. “My investment of providing them some local connections, and a bit of time and advice, seems minimal in the overall scheme of things, but none the less critical when operating such a complex research program in a foreign jurisdiction,” he says. He hopes the two-way transfer of knowledge and experience will continue on future expeditions.
Ubatuba, who has been with OCEARCH for 11 years, says part of the mission is to include visitors on the expedition and to engage with the local community. She loves fostering a collaborative environment and an open exchange of information.
After releasing the second shark of the day and the expedition’s 10th, McBride stands on the sun-drenched deck wearing a dry pair of jeans and a wool sweater. He holds an OCEARCH-branded beer. I ask if he thinks he’ll be studying sharks forever. He shrugs. “It depends on how many questions we create and how many we answer.”