Alex Anstett, a graduate student in the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, gnawed against the frozen flesh with a small hacksaw. Today’s shark bait: barracuda. As she pressed down into a stubborn piece, a chunk of fish flew into her eye. She wiped her face on the sleeve of her shirt with a laugh and went right back to cutting. As Diver’s Paradise motored further into the choppy waters of Biscayne Bay, Anstett tossed bait scraps to a hovering seagull. The bird caught it with ease. Anstett has been working with the University of Miami’s Shark Research and Conservation program since she was a freshman. It was just another day on the water.
University of Miami’s Shark Research & Conservation program (SRC) is made up of a group of undergraduate, graduate and Ph.D. students in the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. Their work combines research and data collection with hands-on learning and community engagement. The SRC lab brings schoolchildren, corporate groups and sometimes private parties on more than 100 shark-tagging trips a year for an oceanic adventure of a lifetime. Students in UM’s SRC program venture into South Florida waters to collect data and teach citizens about what they describe as one of the most misunderstood animals in the world — and this time, I got to go along for the ride.
A 30-minute cruise took us about five miles south of Key Biscayne. On board was Captain Cartaya, his first mate Ryan Fochs and six SRC students, along with three teachers and 17 students from South Broward High School.
“What we want to know is: where are the sharks? What are they doing? How can we promote their conservation?” said Laura McDonnell, the trip leader, as we departed from our dock at Crandon Marina. McDonnell, a second-year Ph.D. student in the Rosenstiel School, made it clear that this was “not an ecosystem tour,” but a hands-on experience.
If and when a shark is caught, the SRC team takes girth measurements, muscle tissue and blood samples. The high school students play their own role in collecting the data. Placed in groups of five, two take measurements of the shark along three points of its body, one cuts a small sample from the shark’s dorsal fin, another tags the shark on the side of that fin and the last hoses the shark down with water to keep it wet.
“Something that differentiates us from other types of S.T.E.M. training for kids is that the activities are not just for them to learn skills and have experience, but to actually contribute to meaningful scientific research that gets published,” said SRC Director and marine ecologist Dr. Neil Hammerschlag. “The idea began when I was doing my Ph.D. at UM. I wanted to do outreach with kids and get them involved with hands-on research. The only way I could help conduct these outreach activities would be to have it fully integrated with the data collection for my Ph.D.”
The SRC staff assured that the measurements and samples taken are not harmful to the sharks. According to them, sharks have fewer pain receptors than humans and no blood flow to their dorsal fins. But what is harmful is keeping them out of the water for an extended period of time. The SRC staff emphasized efficiency and teamwork to minimize stress on the sharks.
This school group has come on several trips with the shark tagging team. Broward High has its own club dedicated to going. Viranda Walters, a sophomore at South Broward High School, said that she has been going on with the “shark team” for about a year. “In the future, I’m planning to do something with zoology or marine biology,” said Walters. “My favorite part is seeing the shark itself and doing the work — it’s not an everyday opportunity.”
So how exactly do they catch the sharks? SRC uses a “drum-line system.” A large, red poly-ball buoy is attached to a 30-pound weight called a drum. The poly ball serves as a line marker, while the weight holds it in place in the water. A hook timer, attached to the drum, is activated by pressure on the line. If the timer has started when it’s pulled out of the water, it not only indicates that there’s an animal on the line, but also how long it’s been there. The bait is connected to the drum and poly ball by about 30 feet of monofilament fishing line designed to withstand up to 900 pounds of force. That line ends with a circle hook— according to the team, they’re less likely than traditional ‘J’ hooks to get caught on internal organs if the shark swallows them.
The team casted 10 lines spaced about 100 meters apart. The lines sat for about an hour before we returned to see what might be waiting on the other end. When the second line was pulled out of the water with a long pole, the hook timer had been activated. We had a shark.
The entire crew went into “go” mode. The high school students had to stay seated for this, but they stretched their necks to get a first glimpse at their first mission of the day.
Captain Cartaya slid a large white jet ski platform from the boat into the water. His hands blurred in motion as he secured it to the stern of the boat in record time. McDonnell began reeling in the line. Two other SRC students held on to it with her while the others stood back, ready to jump into action at any second. All five heaved the sandy-hued shark onto the platform. Two of them immediately straddled and held her down like veteran bull riders. It was an eight foot nurse shark. The high schoolers jumped up from their seats and began their tasks.
Nick Martinez, a junior at UM who interns for SRC, has been an intern for SRC for about a year. “When I got into the program here and I saw that first shark, it was just inspiring and humbling,” Martinez said. He was the “primary physio” on this trip. After the kids took their measurements, it was his job to draw blood from the shark beneath its caudal fin.
After filling his vile, Martinez jogged to the makeshift lab in the bow of the boat. He distributed the blood into small capsules and placed them in a centrifuge — a machine that rotates rapidly to separate the blood into layers of red blood cells, white blood cells and plasma. “It’s insane how much you can tell about an organism from that little bit right there,” Martinez said, pointing out the layer of clear plasma in one of the capsules after it had gone through the machine. “They call it liquid gold,” said Anstett, who was standing next to him working on another blood sampling test called the hematocrit. “When the kids come back here and ask me questions about the blood work it’s like, wow, they have interest. We’re making a difference,” said Martinez.
The bloodwork is done in collaboration with the immunology research of Dr. Liza Merly, a professor stationed off the boat at the Rosenstiel School. Merly is more interested in the cellular and molecular components of sharks, rather than their behavior and ecology. She has been working with students for about three years to establish reference values for shark blood.
“We don’t really know what’s healthy and normal for any given shark. And in some cases, even for the ones we do know, we know it from captive animals whose parameters may be different from wild populations,” said Merly. “It will be helpful to everyone trying to monitor the health of these populations all over the world because now, they’ll have a reference point they can look to.” She noted that her lab is currently finishing up reference values and hoping to start asking additional questions soon. “We’re interested now in taking it a step further and asking: under what conditions do some of those values change?”
The data and research of the SRC has not only local, but global reach. Some blood samples are shared across the country and the world to further the research of other marine scientists.
“I’m not an expert in shark reproduction, but I have a collaborator at Arizona State University who is,” said Dr. Hammerschlag. “He looks for reproductive hormones that give us an idea of the reproductive cycle of the sharks.” He said that he’s also sent samples to a student that he co-advises in Brazil. “She looks at where the sharks sit in the food web versus where they might actually be feeding — just based on the chemistry of the blood,” Hammerschlag said.
Dr. Hammerschlag has ongoing projects in other parts of the world like the Bahamas, the Galapagos Islands and South Africa. In 2002, Hammerschlag began research on the predatory behavior of great white sharks in South Africa and has maintained that work with a local naturalist there. “I’m sending a handful of students to South Africa this summer from UM to work on a project using drones to quantify predator-prey interaction between great whites and seals.”
Back on the boat, the next nine lines came up with no catches. They were all re-baited and thrown again for a second round. And about an hour later, as the tenth and final line of the second round was pulled out with no shark in sight, three dolphins surfaced on the port side bow. We hoped it was a sign of luck.
Taking in the flatline in activity, I pulled out my lunchbox for a snack. I didn’t get two bites in to my banana before three SRC students gasped and stared. I thought I might be the end of a dirty joke. But that wasn’t it. “Bananas are bad luck on boats,” said Anstett with a smile. Apparently, the whole boat knew about this rule except for me. Even Captain Cartaya joked to have me thrown overboard. According to the crew, an old wives’ tale tells the story of a boat carrying bananas across the sea sinking. Since the fruit floats, all that was found of the wreckage were the yellow snacks. I didn’t want to be the bad luck that kept us from catching more sharks. So I offered up the banana. One student sacrificially placed it on the fish cutting table. Anstett smashed it with a rubber mallet and tossed it into the ocean.
We re-baited the 10 lines for a third and final round. The first six came out empty. I was beginning to think my banana had done us in. But line seven brought another nurse shark.
Victor Bach Munoz was capturing the action all day. A second-year grad student, Munoz is the SRC photographer. He discovered his love for sharks when he swam with them at age five. “I didn’t even know what a shark was, so I thought, ‘Oh cool, a big fish,’” said Munoz. “Then I saw “Jaws” and “Deep Blue Sea,” and they piqued my interest. I was surrounded by five sharks, and I’m still alive. According to all these movies, I should be dead. I started researching, and I figured out that sharks really aren’t killing machines.” Munoz said that he thinks photography and videography can convey things that are otherwise challenging. “People think of scientists as people who are in a lab with white coats. If I get a Ph.D., I would love to vlog it to make it more relatable.”
After the boat docked and my shark adventure ended, I spoke to Olivia Shuitema, a senior at UM and an SRC intern who wasn’t onboard that day. Shuitema said the most common misconception of sharks pegs them as mindless, man-eating monsters. “Sharks are actually very timid—depending on species, of course. They’re not malicious, they’re curious. Humans aren’t on their menu,” said Schuitema. “Sharks don’t have hands to touch and investigate like humans. They have a lot of sensors in their mouth — like how a baby puts things in its mouth to try it.”
“A really important part of conservation is communicating the science to people who are going to go out and vote one day—not who are necessarily going to become scientists,” said Dr. Merly. She said it’s experiences like what the SRC program provides that make the biggest impact on people. “They’re going to be informed, and they’re going care about these environments because they saw them first hand. If they can recall a time where they went out and went shark tagging, or whatever it may be, that speaks to people and that’s really powerful.”
Five Facts You Didn’t Know About Sharks
*According to discovermagazine.com and worldwildlife.org.
1. With fossil records dating back 400 million years, sharks have outlived the dinosaurs and many other forms of life currently on Earth.
2. There are more than 1,000 species of sharks and rays, with new species discovered every year.
3. These top predators now face their most severe threat from overfishing.
4. Up to 100 million sharks are killed each year by finning, a practice where fishermen cut off a shark’s dorsal fin to sell as a delicacy, then dump the wounded animal back into the ocean to die. The practice imperils not only sharks but entire food chains, which are disrupted as the animals’ numbers dwindle.
5. Even if sharks could brush their teeth, they wouldn’t need to; shark teeth are covered in fluoride, making them cavity resistant.
This article was published in Distraction’s spring 2020 print issue.
words_emmalyse brownstein photo_victor bach munoz