Ocearch shark-tagging vessel acts as 'servant for the ocean'

126-foot boat equipped for great white research

PONCE INLET, Fla. – The Ocearch vessel isn't what most people would expect when they think of a boat primarily used for shark tagging and research.

Its deck isn't stained or tarnished, a fishy odor doesn't linger in the air and it's not crammed or uncomfortable.

Instead you'll find a fully functional kitchen, several restrooms, more than a dozen bunks and even a bourbon room where Jefferson's bourbon sloshes back and forth in barrels for nearly two years at a time until it's aged to perfection. 

That's because, according to founding chairman and expedition leader Chris Fischer, the OCEARCH vessel is a lot more than just a boat -- it's a home.

"When you have a small ship like this that moves around the world, you're basically a floating city. So we have our own power plants, we have our own water-making facilities, our own sewer treatment facilities so it's really different when you're out here because you're on your own," Fischer said.

The 126-foot-long ship can sleep about 22 people, which includes the six full-time crew members, scientists, a captain, a chef, photographers and social media producers, plus every day it hosts 10 visitors a day who hope to get a glimpse of a great white shark.

The boat is a former Bering Sea crabber that was built in 1992 then purchased by a fisherman who fitted it with a global lift before Ocearch acquired it and turned it into a full-time research vessel in 2007.

In those 10 years, the Ocearch has completed 28 expeditions and traveled across the globe where scientists have tagged dozens of sharks that can be tracked in real time at Ocearch.org.

"I think the really cool thing about the Ocearch is it's an awesome kind of representation of taking a vessel that was made to take from the ocean and now it gives back to the ocean. It's a servant for the ocean. It's creating data to move it toward abundance," Fischer said.

The lift that was formerly used to pick up fishing boats is now used to hoist sharks onto the on-deck cradle where the Ocearch team has 15 minutes to collect blood, bacteria samples, muscle samples and equip it with an internal acoustic tagger, a spot tag on its dorsal fin and a pop-off tag to collect information about the water.

Those samples are then rushed to an on-board laboratory where they are analyzed.

"We want to preserve our samples that we've collected as quickly as possible. So once we've worked up a shark -- we've got her blood, we've got her tissue samples, the fin clips, the muscle biopsies but now we've got to come back in (the lab) and work them all up," Dr. Michael Hyatt, a veterinarian at Adventure Aquarium in Camden, New Jersey, said.

The blood samples are immediately put on a blood tube rocker, then into a centrifuge where the liquid of the blood is separated from the plasma.

Hyatt said that data collected from an i-STAT blood analyzer proves that the sharks experience less stress when tagged on board the ship than they do when tagged while in the water.

The samples are frozen on board so they can be distributed to other marine scientists once the expedition, which usually lasts 20-30 days, comes to an end.

Fischer, who calls himself an "ocean guy" rather than a "shark guy," cited that dissemination of information when he called the Ocearch vessel a symbol of servitude that he hopes will resonate with the public.

"It's an excellent symbol, I think, of transitioning from that of taking to that of giving and serving," Fischer said. "I think it's something that can be applied to all of our individual lives if we have led a life of not really giving back to the ocean and the planet as much as we take, and kind of inspire us to find balance in our journeys."