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Behind the Scenes: Shark Week

Shark week is upon us! As a scientist who has spent a fair amount of time studying sharks, I am no stranger to the hype of Shark Week. In the past, it became a week of shows filled with misinformation and fear mongering documentaries scaring beach goers out of the water. However, in the past few years, Shark Week has changed towards featuring more evidence-based documentaries with various shark scientists. This brings me to my previous involvement. In 2013, I began working on a collaborative project between the University of Miami’s Shark Research and Conservation Program run by Dr. Neil Hammerschlag and the Sulikowski Shark and Fish Research Lab at the University of New England run by Dr. James Sulikowski. The goal was to assess the reproductive biology of a large, pre-dominantly female tiger shark aggregation in the Bahamas nicknamed Tiger Beach. My role was to conduct ultrasound scans and collect blood samples to develop a non-lethal method of determining reproductive status. More on the science behind this work can be found in Sulikowski et al. 2016 that was covered on Oceanbites last year.

The M/V Shear Water at the dock in West Palm Beach, FL.

Due to the cool and interesting data outcomes of this project, in January 2016 we went back to the Bahamas to film this research for a documentary to air during Shark Week 2016. The trip started like any other Tiger Beach expedition. We left West Palm Beach, FL on the M/V Shear Water at 2 am with 5 scientists, 5 film crew, 4 boat crew, and hundreds of pounds of bait and film equipment. The departure was scheduled early so that we would sleep right through the six hour Gulf Stream crossing. However given the time of the year, I don’t think any of the 14 people on the boat slept through the night. The Shear Water is a ~65 foot long converted sportfish boat that could be described as old and steady. She doesn’t get anywhere fast, but you’ll get there. She is also very difficult to miss with a bright blue hull and life size sharks on each side. In the 10-15 foot swells that were our crossing, it was hard to sleep for fear you’d get tossed out of your bunk! However we arrived despite some discomfort in West End, Bahamas in the morning to clear customs before heading 30 miles north to Tiger Beach. I remember emerging onto the back deck expecting sunshine but was instead greeted by strong winds and a light drizzle. This was a clear sign this expedition was all about science and not a Bahamian vacation.

Expectation vs. reality in West End, Bahamas.

Tiger Beach is not actually a beach, but a shallow area on the Little Bahama Bank (Figure 3). There is a variety of ecosystems there, from sand flats and grass beds to extremely abundant coral reefs. It is known year round for its great shark and reef diving, with large female tiger sharks as the crowning jewel. However, these research trips are not for leisure, and as soon as we reached our first site we began to deploy drumlines into the water despite the choppy water. We made quick work of the 10 lines deployed and then began to prep our sampling equipment. This included setting up the pump for the shark’s mouth, getting the data sheet ready, and making sure everyone knows their specific tasks so that the sampling will run like a well-oiled machine. The film crew was also quickly working to set up cameras

and mics, as well as determine the best angles for shots. For my part of the research, we prepped our needles to collect blood and insured that the ultrasound device was running properly and had setting appropriate for a massive tiger shark. Finally we started retrieving lines and landed our first tiger shark of the trip. She was a

The author conducting an ultrasound on a pregnant tiger shark.

decent size mature shark, but we didn’t see any pups in her belly. Nonetheless, we collected data like length, girth, a fin clip for genetic analysis, and blood to assess hormones. We continued on this pattern for the rest of the day, catching a handful of tigers while immediately releasing other species like lemon, nurse, and bull sharks.

This was typical procedure for these trips, spending most daylight and sometimes dusk hours setting lines and catching sharks. However, because we were filming for shark

Drones were used during the filming to capture an aerial view of the action.

week, Joe Romeiro, a very talented cinematographer and major shark enthusiast, invented a non-invasive dorsal fin mount clamping camera to put on a tiger shark. The rig was designed to have a corrosive detachment that would allow us to take a ride on a tiger shark via cameras to see what it was up to for a few hours. It was outfitted with two types of tracking devices so that it could be located and recovered afterwards. In the show it appears we deployed this camera once and recovered it successfully, however we actually managed that feat twice! Because of Tiger Beach’s proximity to the Gulf Stream, if the camera popped up and floated west, it could have easily been swept north and never seen again. To recover the camera, Dr. Neil Hammerschlag and I spent two full rainy and choppy 6 hour afternoons in a small 15 foot boat trying to do the impossible: spot a small black square floating in the middle of the ocean. Of course we had acoustic telemetry to help us with general direction; however it was extremely difficult even with technology. Each time we found the camera we were greeted back at Shear Water with a hero’s welcome and hot beverages. Without retrieving those cameras we would have lost precious equipment and the amazing videos the cameras held.

One of the major components of filming that goes unnoticed is all of the takes, angles, and sound bites. Much of our trip focused on sampling sharks, but to make a good show, we also had to spend a lot of extra hours filming interviews, flying drones for aerial footage, and conducting complicated scuba diving scenes with communicator masks. There was only a six day window of time at Tiger Beach to collect material for an entire hour show, so the days could be long and tedious. However, it is extremely rewarding in the end to see the outcome on national television, as it gives scientists the opportunity to show the public why their work is so cool and important. Overall, filming for Shark Week was a once in a lifetime experience where I met some amazing people and sharks. Despite the exhaustion after the expedition, it was so much fun to spend time working on a project with like-minded people that all love the same thing, sharks!

The entire crew of the expedition.

The science team (L to R: Emily Nelson, Dr. James Sulikowski, Dr. Neil Hammerschlag, the author, Christian Pankow)


Tiger Beach re-airs on Shark Week on Sunday July 23rd @ 7AM EST, and Friday July 28th @ 11AM EST. It is also available on iTunes and various video streaming websites.





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