JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - About two dozen scientists and crew members are setting sail Wednesday morning aboard OCEARCH to haul great white sharks on board and conduct research.
“It’s like trying to stop a truck,” said OCEARCH first mate Todd Goggins.
It’s his job to reel in great whites like Lydia, which OCEARCH caught and tagged off Jacksonville’s coast in 2013.
“Just like you see in the movie 'Jaws,' you just put chum in the water – a lot of times, just ground-up fish. And we also use seal decoys,” said Goggins. “The shark will kind of come up, get curious, and we’ll basically just hand-feed it.”
You read that right. Goggins hand-feeds great white sharks.
“Yeah, like literally. Literally. We want to ensure that the hook gets right in the corner of the mouth so we can get it out easily. The No. 1 goal is the safety of the shark,” said Goggins.
“So the fishing actually happens from ‘The Contender,’ this white boat right here. That’s where the fishing team spends 12-14 hours every day,” said OCEARCH chief operating officer Fernanda Ubatuba.
Then the crew transfers it to the ship’s platform, which submerges underwater, and then lifts the shark up onto the deck, where the scientists have 15 minutes to work.
“We’ve had no injuries or no accidents because it’s such a big platform that allows us to complete the work in a timely manner, release the shark, and then bring all those samples to the labs,” said Ubatuba.
University of North Florida shark biology program director Dr. Jim Gelsleichter is the only local scientist aboard OCEARCH.
His focus is shark reproduction and he is hoping to find a pregnant great white during Expedition Jacksonville.
“That is, right now, my holy grail,” said Gelsleichter.
Gelsleichter will perform ultrasounds on any female great whites OCEARCH brings onto the platform to find out if they’re pregnant and how many pups they’re going to have.
To his knowledge, an ultrasound has never been performed on a pregnant great white.
“We are working with these field ultrasounds that are semi-rugged. They’re water-resistant and provide us with the unique opportunity to pull what used to be in the laboratory into the field,” said Gelsleichter.
Tracking great white Lydia provided a lot of information to OCEARCH researchers that will guide this year’s Expedition Jacksonville strategy.
“We’re also going to be exploring new fishing spots based on the tracks that she gave to us,” said Ubatuba.
The water off Jacksonville’s coast is very murky, so researchers on the ship are getting some extra help.
Spotter planes are going to feed OCEARCH information when they see great whites from a bird’s-eye view.
OCEARCH leaves Wednesday and returns April 2.
Jacksonville Mayor Lenny Curry plans to join the OCEARCH team for at least a day of their research on the water.
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