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I have to admit, I’ve always wondered why someone would want to—on purpose—get up close and personal with a shark. It’s not that I’m particularly scared of them. Yes, like millions, I screamed out loud during the movie “Jaws,” and laughed at the line, “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” But the movie didn’t make me afraid to go to the beach and get in the water.
Diving with them, though? Nah, I’d leave that up to my husband, a dive master who is more of a risk taker and a thrill seeker than I am. For me, diving was all about seeing pretty fish. Pretty, harmless fish.
But here I was on a boat 20 miles or so off the shores of the Bahamas with a bunch of people who were getting about as up close and personal as you can with a 12-foot long, live tiger shark. Taking blood samples and tissue samples. Doing a sonogram to see if she was pregnant. Performing surgery to implant an acoustic tracking device. Giving her an “atta girl” pet on the back as she swims away after her exam.
These people have made sharks their lives’ work. And I found myself wondering—why? What is it about sharks? And what were their first close encounters like?
Dr. Neil Hammerschlag runs the R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Lab at the University of Miami. He and his team, as well as the owner and crew of the dive boat the Shear Water, were on an expedition to gather data on tiger sharks in the wild. The goal of the research is to help save shark populations from decline by providing policy makers with scientific evidence to help them make smart conservation decisions.
“I first encountered tiger sharks about 10 years ago on a boat with my friend Jim Abernethy,” Dr. Hammerschlag told “TechKnow.” “We had been in search of sharks all day, but we didn’t find any. I was taking a shower, and I heard someone yell ‘tiger shark’ really loud. Being young and not really thinking about the consequences at the time, I put on my wet suit, my fins, my snorkel, grabbed my camera and just cannonballed off the back of the boat—only to see these two big tiger sharks swimming behind me.”
Turns out the sharks were curious about him, too. “All of a sudden, one of them turned towards me, and it swam, very slowly, right up to me. Because its eyes are on the sides of its head, it had to turn to look at me. It opened its mouth, circled me a few times and went back into the darkness. It was a thrilling and unbelievable experience. Any time I closed my eyes for weeks after, that’s what I saw. And I think that was one of the driving reasons that, over a decade later, [tiger sharks are] one of the focal species in this lab.”
Hammerschlag’s friend Jim Abernethy owns a scuba diving business known for its cage free shark dives. His boat, the Shear Water, serves as a floating lab for some of Hammerschlag’s expeditions. But Abernethy admits that as a child, he was scared to death of sharks—because of “Jaws.”
“I can remember my first encounter out snorkeling as a kid with my parents on this very shallow reef. I saw my first shark and I swam as fast as I could back to the boat. I said, ‘Get out of the water, it’s a shark.’ And my father said, ‘Jim, it’s a nurse shark, it’s still asleep under the ledge.’ But in my mind, it had chased me all the way back to the boat, and it was a near death experience.”
Now he makes his living swimming with sharks, photographing them, and offering other people the chance to get up close and personal with them.
“These are what I would call magic moments that very few people ever get, one opportunity in a lifetime [to experience]. It’s a moment where a wild animal actually connects with you in some way that you just feel moved.”
These magic moments are a driving force for everyone on the expedition. Austin Gallagher is a PhD candidate on Hammerschlag’s research team. His dedication to sharks was inspired by a childhood experience in Mexico.
“I was on vacation with my parents and we were walking around the dock one night, and there was this one Mexican guy in the water, a handler, and he had a nurse shark with him. People could pay five pesos to go jump in with the animal. I actually passed on the opportunity, because I was too scared. But I remember seeing it and being so transfixed by it—and over the course of my adolescence and teenage years I became more and more intrigued, and the stars aligned.”
Emily Rose Nelson just finished her freshman year studying Marine Science and Biology at the University of Miami. She experienced her first face-to-face meeting with a shark soon after she joined Hammerschlag’s team.
“I had just been certified [to dive] about two months before I came on the trip,” Nelson says. “It was a reef shark. It was incredible just seeing it up on the platform. Neil had me go down and feel the dermal denticles. It was so awesome! I'd do this every weekend—it never gets old.”
Of course, my first encounter of the close kind was like Emily Nelson’s—here on this research expedition with Dr. Hammerschlag. And like Emily, I was invited to run my hand along the shark’s skin, and I noticed how it was smooth in one direction and rough in the other, because of those sharp little teeth-like projections called denticles. And yes, I was awestruck at the shark’s massiveness and its fearsome teeth.
But I was also mesmerized by the shark’s beauty. Tiger sharks have the most gorgeous big dark eyes. Who knew? And now I find myself eager to go on a shark dive, to experience them in the wild, in their element, while it’s still possible.
Because here’s the other thing I was struck by when I saw those sharks on the research platform and in the water—their vulnerability. One in three species of sharks that live in the open ocean is threatened with extinction. As many as 100 million sharks are killed every year. All because of us—humans who directly or indirectly are their biggest menace.
Hmmm. Maybe it’s the sharks that are gonna need a bigger boat.