A normal week of the “Natural History of Sharks and Rays” class I took this summer at the University of Hawai’i-Hilo consisted of reading five scientific articles, a dissection in lab, and Friday nights out in the field tagging sharks. Those Friday nights were probably the most fun and rewarding I have had in school. We would spend a good four to five–and on one night even seven–hours baiting and tagging sharks in Hilo Bay.
We operated off two boats, the first being an 18-foot Larson fishing boat (the “base”) and the other a smaller 15-foot rigid inflatable (the tender). We measured the length, took a tissue sample, and tagged the sharks and rays on the inflatable as it is easier to manage and still keep the sharks in the water during the procedures. On a slow night we only had one juvenile oceanic blacktip shark, while on our busiest night we couldn’t check the lines fast enough!
Three of our catches stick out in my memory.
The first was the brown stingray that was about the size, if not larger, than a dining table! I have never seen a wild stingray that large, but she was a beauty!
The second catch I remember was the female sandbar shark that bit the boat. Just as we had her all calmed down (or so we thought) and ready to measure her length, she turned and bit the boat. When a shark bites an inflatable boat you can’t just yank it off unless you want to lose a chunk of the vessel. All you can do is wait until it decides to let go. After a few tense few minutes of listening to the air seep out, she tried to reposition her hold, and we were able to keep her from latching on again. Once the whole class stopped laughing at the ridiculousness of the whole thing, some duct tape was found and a basic patch was made.
My third memorable moment was one of our last outings. I was helping set the trotline out, when I felt a tug … small, but definitely something there. My professor was skeptical, since the line wasn’t completely out and I was claiming we had a shark on the line. What felt like minutes ticked by as I pulled the line in. I was starting to second-guess myself, when I felt a definite tug and saw a small wriggling body slowly making its way to the surface. Circling just below the surface was the smallest baby oceanic blacktip I had ever seen. He was so young that the umbilical scar was still open! He was a little fighter, too. Instead of bringing him back to the rest of the class waiting on the Larson, we decided the less traumatic procedure would be to just work on him right there. One, two, three, and he was off, swimming away enthusiastically. We reset the line and made our way back to the rest of the class, still beaming from our encounter with the little guy we just released.
The sharks and rays class was the most reading-, studying-, and writing-intensive class I have ever taken, but also the most rewarding. For six weeks I was able to work with sharks, up close and personal. I learned more than I could have ever imagined, and I want to learn more. My “Summer of the Shark” was a memorable one for sure!
Blue Marble Exploration
Hilo, HI USA