Two history-making OCEARCH expeditions are complete, a resounding success for the more than 30 leading South African and international shark researchers from over 16 institutions who participated. The researchers and crew of the MV OCEARCH tagged, sampled and released over 40 Great White sharks. Among them was a female shark named Success, at nearly 17 feet she is the largest Great White ever tagged in South Africa.
Expedition Leader and OCEARCH Founder Chris Fischer credits the expeditions’ accomplishments to preparation and exceptional hard work of the scientists and crew: “Since 2007 we have executed 12 expeditions catapulting the body of knowledge forward on the science of the ocean’s giants. Those expeditions prepared us for South Africa, the most demanding expedition to date. The crew and equipment of the research vessel MV OCEARCH performed flawlessly, delivering an unprecedented number of white sharks to South Africa’s leading scientists.”
Fischer believes this access will allow South African researchers to push science beyond current knowledge boundaries. “We will discover South Africa’s white shark breeding aggregations, birthing sites, and feeding areas,” he says. Breeding and birthing areas, where white sharks are most vulnerable, are a great concern. Knowing where they are is the first step in protecting them, a key goal for OCEARCH and Fischer: “For the first time, we will have the information necessary to affect policy correctly and ensure a bright future for the white sharks of South Africa.”
Bacteria studies from the sharks’ mouths are being cultured to develop the first shark bite antibiotic. Fischer is enthusiastic about the outcome: “This will allow doctors to treat secondary infection from shark bites that have in the past lead to loss of limb and human life.”
In an effort to enhance public safety, OCEARCH’s SPOT tag data is being sent directly from the satellite company to Cape Town’s Shark Spotters program. This allows them to have more data on white shark movements and enhance their ability to protect water users and reduce human/shark conflict.
Fischer and the scientists relied heavily on his ship’s crew: “It is impossible for me to express my thanks to the crew of the MV OCEARCH. They put their lives on the line for the future of South Africa’s sharks and the ocean. They delivered the previously undeliverable to scientists. Their endurance and courage over 65 days on the water was humbling. I will be grateful to them for the rest of my life and I love them like family.”
He also acknowledges that with leadership comes responsibility: “Great trust was placed in us by both the South African government and the research community. For this we are grateful. It is a privilege to be able to assist their country and research community. Careers and futures are on the line when you are pioneering research like this, and we take that responsibility and burden seriously.”
After two months aboard ship with the top scientists and institutions, Fischer had this to say about them: “I leave our South African researchers now with a challenge. Pursue your research projects with vigor, and get the data published! You have dedicated yourselves to changing the future of ocean conservation in South Africa and you have a daunting, yet highly rewarding, task before you. You are going to process an enormous amount of data – more than anyone has ever collected on the biology and movement of white sharks. The results of your work will change the landscape of conservation policy and establish South Africa as a world leader in shark research. I hope that South Africa is as proud of you as I am – South Africa is a country that deserves a bright healthy future for its people and its treasured ocean resources.”
The researchers, including three of whom were aboard the MV OCEARCH the entire time, had their own thoughts about working with Fischer and his team. Dr. Pieter Koen, Deputy Director: Animal Health for the Western Cape Department of Agriculture who served as the attending veterinarian for the expeditions stated: “The heavy responsibility of attending to the welfare of the sharks captured during the expeditions initially was a daunting prospect. The professionalism and experience of the capture teams, crew and fellow scientists assisted me greatly to effectively exercise this responsibility – a fact borne out by the number of sharks transmitting to the satellites days and even hours following their capture.” He adds: “On a personal level, the achievement to obtain comprehensive blood samples from more than 75% of the white sharks captured was a high point. At one stage blood samples were obtained from 18 white sharks in succession.”
The Department of Environmental Affairs researcher, Mike Meyer stated: “The OCEARCH initiative presented a unique opportunity for South African and international scientists to apply their professional skills and utilise the capabilities of state of the art equipment such as a lifting cradle, to conduct unprecedented research on large, mature white sharks in our waters. The findings, including ranging behaviour and the locations of pupping and mating areas, will provide the government with the relevant information for improved management of our white shark population. In addition, the sampling protocols that were developed for this initiative to achieve its scientific objectives while minimising the impacts on the sharks, are by far the most comprehensive to date in South Africa and perhaps the world.”
Marine Scientist and Shark Spotters Research Manager Alison Kock says: “The educational and awareness benefits for people to be able to see this information is immense because for the first time, instead of reading about great white sharks in a book, or seeing something in a documentary, people can see the science in action. This means that people have a passport to sharing in the daily lives of these apex predators and being part of new discoveries alongside the scientists.” Alison sums up the outcomes of the entire OCEARCH project: “It’s inevitable that as long as people and sharks continue to share the same space that there will be interactions between the two, but with a greater understanding of shark movements and habits and what drives them we can enhance water user safety.”
Ryan Johnson, Chief Scientist for the project, sums up why the project is essential: “Without accurate research on the ecology and status of the sharks, you cannot formulate effective conservation plans, thus condemning many shark species to eventual extinction. The reality in the ‘shark research’ world is that you require massive resources to produce this type of vital knowledge.” He added: “What OCEARCH presented in terms of logistical, financial and expert resources was a once in a career opportunity to the shark research community of South Africa. It empowered us to make the contribution that many of us dreamt about when we dedicated our lives to shark research and conservation.” In terms of outcomes, Johnson is clear: “What we achieved over the 65 days at sea redefined shark research here in South Africa, for the first time ever we are producing the concrete data required to establish effective shark conservation plans. Overall, the OCEARCH project has revitalised and galvanised South Africa’s shark research community, it has allowed us to believe that as scientists in a developing country we can still produce the quality research required to give our sharks a future.”
Here is an in depth talk from Chris Fischer about where comes from and why he does what he does.