How Ocearch tags, tracks great white sharks off Florida’s coast

Research helps scientists understand elusive species

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – Orlando-area swimmers are no strangers to hearing about sharks in the water.

We love to hear about sharks pinging off the coast, but do we know how or why it happens?

News 6 anchor Ginger Gadsden took to an Ocearch boat to find out. Members of the nonprofit organization are responsible for tagging and tracking sharks all over the world.

The Ocearch team picked up Gadsden and her team at Ponce Inlet. The mission was originally scheduled near Jacksonville, but unusually cold weather forced the team to move farther south.

Sharks, like Floridians, don't like the cold.

Somewhat surprising is how close the research vessel is to land -- just a mile from the shore -- because that's where the sharks are.

"The one thing we've learned since 2012 is if you live on the East Coast of the United States, particularly down here and East Coast to Florida, we've all been swimming with white sharks our whole lives," said Ocearch founder and expedition leader Chris Fischer. "We just know now. Oftentimes, people say, 'What should I do now that we know the white sharks are here?' It's like, no, nothing's changed. We just know now. You know, 400 people a year die from defective toasters, you should be terrified to make toast. There's only about, you know, eight to 10 people a year taken worldwide by sharks, right? So it's an irrational fear that doesn't statistically exist."

Since 2012, Fischer and his team have tagged 33 great whites.

So, on New Year's Day, when Savannah, a great white, pinged off Cape Canaveral, it was because the Ocearch team had previously tagged her and now follows her every move in near-real time.

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The Ocearch research vessel is a 126-foot long boat primarily used for shark tagging and research. It sleeps about 20 people comfortably and has traveled across the world.

Its global shark tracker keeps tabs on every shark Ocearch has tagged. Scientists are trying to figure out where the sharks mate and have their babies, information that's vital to the survival of these apex predators.

This is information Ocearch shares with everyone so that it can later be used for further research or conservation policy decisions.

Never before has this kind of data been so widely available. Fischer said the more that people know how important sharks are to keeping the ocean balanced, the more people will care about keeping the ocean pristine.

"And once they're in and they're learning about sharks, you can start talking to them about marine debris or plastics or the northern right whale that's in trouble right here. And you have this massive community suddenly switched on. And sharks are powerful that way," Fischer said.

These powerful creatures are also elusive. Much of the time aboard the research vessel is spent watching and waiting.

Once the team does hook a shark, like Katharine, whose exploits we've been tracking for years, every minute counts. There are close to two dozen scientists on board the ship, and each has a vital job once they get the shark hoisted onto the ship's platform.

[Web extra: Get a behind-the-scenes look at the Ocearch shark-tagging vessel]

They are careful to keep it calm because they have only about 15 minutes to perform a battery of tests, which is not an easy task when the patient is 14 feet long and weighs more than a ton.

Dr. Bob Hueter, the chief science advisor for Ocearch, said their scientists work like a NASCAR pit crew.

"Everything from implanting tags to taking fin clips for genetic samples," Hueter said. "Taking parasite samples, taking swabs to look at things like how they fight disease, taking the blood, doing the ultrasound. I mean, it's literally like a crazy pit crew."

Fischer admitted, that he's not a shark guy, but he does love the ocean. He wants to give it back at least some of what we all take so it can thrive for generations to come.

“I think the power of everyone stopping for a moment and thinking about, ‘What’s my relationship with the ocean?’ Like, am I just going and taking these awesome family experiences or do I go do that eight times and then go out and do two beach cleanups?’” Fischer said. “You know, or cut plastics out of my life, so that plastics aren’t ending up in the ocean and our turtles are eating them and dying and our whales are eating them and dying. Just stop for a moment and be like, ‘Oh man, I say I love her, but do I act like I love her?’”

About the Author:

Ginger Gadsden joined the News 6 team in June 2014 as an anchor/reporter. She currently co-anchors the 4 p.m. 5:30 p.m. and the 7 p.m. newscasts.