JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The nonprofit organization OCEARCH has completed its three-week expedition in Jacksonville waters, and while researchers didn't find what they expected, they did find something else.
Sharks are some of the most respected and feared predators of our time, but scientists still know relatively little about them. OCEARCH researchers have made it their mission to learn more about them to preserve them around the world. The organization has been to Jacksonville before and returned for another three-week mission that wrapped up at the end of March.
News4Jax spent two days on the water with the researchers with access to everything the crew pulled in, tested, tagged and released.
Three years ago, OCEARCH caught a 14-foot great white shark close to the Mayport Jetties. The researchers named her Lydia and tagged her with a GPS device so they could continue to track the movements of the 2,000-pound shark.
In 2012, the group tracked a 16-foot, 3,600-pound great white named MaryLee right under the Jacksonville Beach Pier.
MaryLee and Lydia are two reasons OCEARCH came back to Jacksonville the last few weeks with a crew of more than 20 scientists and fishermen.
Researchers started the expedition just off of Fernandina Beach. But after several days without finding any great whites, they moved a little further south, just off the coast of Duval County, to see exactly what's swimming off Atlantic, Neptune and Jacksonville beaches.
Sure enough, the crew found the fish, but it wasn't the great whites they thought they would find. Equally impressive, the crew found tiger sharks, a species scientists really want to study.
"They are kind of the balance keepers of the warmer tropical waters. And normally I would have thought we would have been seeing them in warmer water. It's 69 degrees now, but clearly they are here," said OCEARCH founder Chris Fischer.
News4Jax watched and recorded video as the sharks were wrangled, first brought onto a center console and then back to the mother ship where they were guided onto a lift. In a matter of about 10 minutes, biologists study the fish, pump water through their gills to keep them healthy, all while drawing blood and measuring them.
One tiger shark was about 11 feet long. The following day the crew caught and tagged another, which was eight feet.
"It is exciting. We just tagged and released another shark here right in front of the Mayport poles," said Fischer. "And we were really thrilled to be able to name it Duval, for all the people here in Duval County to follow."
After the sharks were let go, scientists went to work testing the samples onboard the ship.
"There are many biological and ecological questions that we can answer from blood samples from the sharks, explained Dr. Heather Marshall with Mote Marine Laboratory. "It will just help to better conserve the species as well as better inform public safety."
While this is Marshall's seventh expedition with OCEARCH, it is University of North Florida graduate student Clark Morgan's first.
"I have learned a lot. It's awesome," Morgan said. "Everyone on this boat is a legend from the crew of the OCEARCH to the other members of the science team."
Morgan is part of a group from UNF studying the mating habits of sharks in the area.
"Understanding the reproductive biology is important to understanding the ecology of these water systems," he said.
Many people are scared of sharks this close to home, but the researchers said they shouldn't be.
"You know, 400 people died last year from defective toasters -- eight by sharks. So if people have concerns about sharks, they should be absolutely terrified to make toast," said Fischer.
He said sharks are actually one of the most important parts of the marine ecosystem, so the fact that OCEARCH is finding more and more near the shore is actually a good thing.
"It's a great sign," said Fischer. "It means that your ocean here is moving toward abundance. A healthy ocean is full of sharks. We should all be afraid of an ocean with no sharks in it. That means there would be no fish for our kids to eat."
While OCEARCH didn't tag any great whites off Jacksonville this year, researchers said they aren't worried. The species is very elusive and smart, which makes the sharks hard to catch. The OCEARCH plane did spot several from the air and a fisherman reported seeing a 16-footer the last week of March. Plus, they're able to learn a lot from the three male tiger sharks that they caught, tagged and released this time around.
To track these sharks or any sharks OCEARCH is monitoring in real time or to donate to the nonprofit organization, go to http://www.ocearch.org. To follow the sharks' movements on a cellphone, search for the "Global Shark Tracker" in the Apple or Android app stores. (Direct Apple link and direct Android link)