Three Scientists, a Surprise Discovery, and a Mission to Save Sharks

By Alix Morris

This week, Alix traveled to Hermanus, South Africa to meet with the Earthwatch research team leading the Discovering Sharks in South Africa expedition. These scientists are helping to conserve diverse species of sharks in Walker Bay, some of which are only found in South African waters.

Before concluding my time in South Africa, I snuck in a brief trip to Hermanus, a town that sits on the edge of Walker Bay, to meet with some stellar shark scientists. Walker Bay is on the migratory route of southern right whales and just around the corner from one of the largest groupings of white sharks in the world. In other words, it’s a wildlife tourist’s dream. But what many people don’t realize is that beneath the surface of these waters lives a diverse array of other, fascinating marine species, including dozens of unique sharks. These animals go largely unnoticed by tourists and even, in some cases, by other shark researchers. But with a quarter of the world’s shark and ray populations at risk of extinction, it’s possible these lesser-known species face similar threats and yet lack the necessary protections.

SASC volunteers feed a shyshark in one of the holding tanks to record its consumption levels before it’s released.

Many of these sharks are “data deficient,” meaning that scientists are unaware of their conservation status. Without data, it’s impossible to develop protective policies – and researchers at the South African Shark Conservancy (SASC) are working to change that.

A (Massive) Discovery

In 2009, a group of shark researchers and fishermen led by SASC’s Founder and Director Meaghen McCord were drifting along the Breede River – an estuary in the Western Cape Province of South Africa – aboard their research vessel. Acting on a hunch, the team was on a mission to confirm the presence of bull sharks in the river. They knew the journey might be a wasted effort – bull sharks had never been recorded in the river, which was located well south of their documented range. But locals had told them that this species, which has a unique ability to live in both oceans and freshwater estuaries and lakes, were there.

After three days, there was a strong tug on the line. Sure enough, there it was – the first bull shark to be documented in these temperate waters. One of the team members – a skilled recreational shark fisherman – acted quickly, maneuvering the rod and reel as the massive animal dragged their boat six kilometers upriver. After three hours, the shark grew tired and he was able to bring it close enough to the research boat for the scientists to study it. But as they recorded the animal’s measurements, they realized there was something unique about this shark, which was 4 meters long with an estimated weight of 550 kg.

They had unknowingly caught the largest bull shark known to science.

Led by SASC’s Meaghen McCord, scientists catch and measure the largest bull shark ever recorded before releasing it back into the river. Photo credit: Alison Towner

Led by SASC’s Meaghen McCord, scientists catch and measure the largest bull shark ever recorded before releasing it back into the river. Photo credit: Alison Towner

Three Women Team Up for Shark Conservation

One year after the discovery of the bull shark in these waters, two researchers – Tamzyn Zweig and Katie Gledhill – independently tracked Meaghen down and convinced her to take them on at SASC. The organization transitioned from a one-woman, barebones operation to a trio-led powerhouse.

“We absolutely fell in love with each other’s personalities. We’re so lucky to have found each other,” Meag said to me as we sat overlooking the Bay.

(Left to Right) Tamzyn Zweig, Meaghen McCord, and Katie Gledhill taking measurements and recording data in Shark Lab.

(Left to Right) Tamzyn Zweig, Meaghen McCord, and Katie Gledhill taking measurements and recording data in Shark Lab.

Together, these scientists (and their growing team) have pushed forward the field of shark research in the region, tagging more than 1,000 elasmobranchs (sharks, skates, and rays) that represent 25 unique species, and raising awareness of the vast number of shark species in Walker Bay. One of their most important focus areas is engaging with the local community, including schools, other non-profits, the local government, and, importantly, fishermen, who are well positioned to support shark conservation efforts. During the short time I met with the team in the research lab, at least five groups arrived for a meet and greet to visit the researchers as well as the sharks in the holding tanks (a few smaller sharks are kept in tanks so the team can study their behavior before releasing them back into the wild).

From a baby pyjama shark that can fit in the palm of your hand, to a shyshark that curls its tail to cover its eyes when it’s frightened, to the massive bull sharks with their unique adaptations to salt and freshwater ecosystems, there is seemingly no end to the uniqueness and diversity of the shark species that exist in the western Cape region of South Africa.

baby-pyjama-shark

A four-month-old pyjama shark, named for its unique stripes that resemble pajamas.

Changing Perceptions

Katie said that her happiest moments as a scientist come when she sees someone’s first interaction with sharks – and how quickly it can change their perceptions of these predators. Sure enough, when she put a leopard catshark in my hands, I immediately felt the strength and power of the small animal – it was overwhelming. I couldn’t help but give her and Tamzyn an embarrassingly enormous smile (since they loved the photo, I’ll begrudgingly share it here).

Even as a writer, I find myself struggling to put that experience into words. Best to experience it and discover these fascinating animals for yourself!

Alix holds a leopard catshark while Katie laughs at her excitement.

Alix holds a leopard catshark while Katie laughs at her excitement.

If there’s a story about following your passion to make a difference in the world, it’s the story of these three scientists. Katie told me that she had initially been discouraged from pursuing a career in shark research, but ignored the advice. As she spoke to me about her path over the years, tears came to her eyes. “I’m so glad that I didn’t listen. I’m so glad. Sometimes I just look back and realize that life is beyond what I ever could have imagined.” The sharks in Walker Bay are lucky to have such strong and determined advocates. Their work has helped to raise awareness about the diversity and importance of sharks in the region, and the world. And with the help of citizen scientists, they’ll have the power to extend their efforts even further.

(Left to right) Tamzyn Zweig, Alix Morris, Sheraine Van Wyk (research partner and Manager of Eco-Learning and Greenhouse Environmental Centre at Whale Coast Conservation), Katie Gledhill, and Meaghen McCord outside of the South African Shark Conservancy office in Hermanus.

(Left to right) Tamzyn Zweig, Alix Morris, Sheraine Van Wyk (research partner and Manager of Eco-Learning and Greenhouse Environmental Centre at Whale Coast Conservation), Katie Gledhill, and Meaghen McCord outside of the South African Shark Conservancy office in Hermanus.

Farewell (for now!) South Africa

And so concludes my journey, visiting two glorious Earthwatch expeditions. The time passed much too quickly, but I was so lucky to have been able to meet the researchers and our partners and to share my experiences with all of you. Thanks for reading!

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