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No tags yet, but OCEARCH spots first shark of N.S. expedition (22 photos)

Sunday morning at around 10:30 a.m., they had their first fin sighting near a seal colony east of Heckmans Island

UPDATE: OCEARCH tagged its first great white in Canadian waters on Monday afternoon

As the OCEARCH researchers sit anchored in the Atlantic Ocean near Lunenburg hoping to tag their first shark in Canadian waters, it appears they're on the right track.

This is the crew's 33rd expedition and they've only come up empty once.

Sunday morning at around 10:30 a.m., they had their first fin sighting near a seal colony east of Heckmans Island, a spot they moved to Saturday.

"To see one in a day-and-a-half out here, really one full day, is unbelievably fast," expedition leader Chris Fischer told HalifaxToday.ca. "I was hoping we'd see one the first week."

Without being able to catch a good look at the shark's body, researchers can't say for certain it was a great white, but Fischer said he's 85 per cent sure.

"The bigger porbeagles, the makos, the blue sharks ... they're not going to wander up into a bay like this in the shallows. This is just not the environment they choose to be in," he explained. "I don't know what else it would have been in 40 feet of water, in a bay and in front of seals."

Dr. Bob Hueter, the expedition's chief science advisor, is also pretty confident the fin belonged to a great white.

"I just got a 5 second look at it, but it had the classic look of a great white fin," he explained."

"We know they're here. Through our own satellite data, through the reports of fishermen we've been getting, the fact that the [Department of Fisheries and Oceans] tagged one a week or so ago just up the way here closer to Halifax, this is definitely white shark territory."

Fischer hopes they'll be able to get a closer look at the shark in the coming days.

"Obviously we didn't capture the shark and tag it, but that shark's not going anywhere. It's around, it's just not bite time for that animal," Fischer said. "I think that's the one thing people don't understand. We'll see many sharks or the same shark many times, and then suddenly it decides it's time to eat."

OCEARCH's expedition was largely inspired by a great white shark named Hilton who was tagged near Hilton Head S.C. in March 2017.

Last summer and early fall, Hilton spent most of his time along Nova Scotia's south shore in the Lunenburg area. 

This led OCEARCH researchers to believe the sharks could be breeding in our waters, a theory that seemed to be confirmed when the weather warmed up this year and Hilton returned to the same spot.

The expedition's main goal this trip is to tag a mature female in hopes she will get pregnant, then 18-months from now, can be tracked to where she gives birth.

"There's no parental care, females don't stay with the young," Hueter said. 

That makes the young sharks vulnerable.  Discovering their nesting grounds would allow protection measures to be put in place.

"Finding the babies and helping the babies is really the most important thing to make sure there's lots of big white sharks cruising around balancing the whole Northwest Atlantic," Fischer explained.

While more great white sharks in our waters may not seem like a good thing to some, Hueter said it's essential for a healthy ocean ecosystem.

He cited an example from Tasmania, where the emergence of a shark fishery resulted in the collapse of the lobster fishery.

"The sharks that were out there were feeding heavily on octopus ... but no sharks meant octopus went crazy, getting into traps and the lobster fishery crashed."

OCEARCH is the only shark tagging crew that actually lifts the animal out of the water onto a platform beside their modified crab boat, which Fischer said reduces the impact on the animal.

The shark's eyes are covered with a towel and ocean water is fed down a tube so it can run through the gills. Blood samples are taken right after the animal comes on board and again right before being released to test the shark's stress level.

"When they figure out they can't get away, they just lay still and go helpless and they're not getting anymore stressed," he said. "Whereas when they're in the water, they keep thinking they can get away. They just fight and fight and fight, which elevates their stress levels."

It also allows the crew to do several tests on each shark for the approximately 15 minutes it's on the boat deck. The Nova Scotia expedition is conducting 15 different research studies.

While most of OCEARCH hopes for a mature female, Gisele Montano wants a male shark to be pulled from the water.

"We are conducting a study on shark reproduction and I'm specifically here to collect semen samples," explained the SeaWorld researcher.

She plans to examine the sample for DNA fragmentation and sperm motility.

Lisa Crawford is a toxicologist at Stoney Brook University and will be taking muscle tissue samples to analyze them for containments like methylmercury, PCBs, flame retardants and pesticides.

"It's really a way to see if any uptake of contaminants they're receiving has an affect on their cellular processes and the overall health of the animal."

In addition to tagging and researching the animals, Fischer hopes getting people involved by tracking the animals on OCEARCH's website and "interacting" with them on Twitter helps change the public perception of great white sharks.

Mary Lee is OCEARCH's most-famed shark. She was tagged in Sept. 2012 and last heard from June 2017, likely because the battery on her tracker surpassed its approximately 5 year life span.

"I think there's been a massive shift in the tone around white sharks since Mary Lee started first communicating with people," Fischer said. "She gave sharks a voice."

Kelsey Laing would agree. She was picked out of 98,000 contest entries to join OCEARCH's expedition in Nova Scotia.

The law student from Long Island grew up fearing sharks, but now they are her favourite animals.

"We grew up going to the beach, the whistle would blow when someone would see a fin," Laing said. "I tried to learn a little more and realized they're just incredible creatures."


Meghan Groff

About the Author: Meghan Groff

Born in Michigan, raised in Ontario, schooled in Indiana & lives in Nova Scotia; Meghan is the community editor for HalifaxToday.ca.
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