Jim Abernethy

Straddling a 1-ton tiger shark to get the story

Our contributor reflects on 5 days spent on a research boat in the Bahamas.

Day 3

I am literally straddling a one-ton tiger shark, helping pin it down on a rolling platform 20 miles off the coast of the Bahamas. My shins are bleeding into the water from the rough, sand paper-like shark skin.

Shark skin is like sand paper- when you have to pin down a 2,000 lbs tiger shark you end up with some battle wounds.

I’m getting bashed by waves as blood-filled needles and scalpels and a car battery are being passed around me. This is so crazy. And so much fun.

The shark research team scrambling around me is working in a way they can only describe as “controlled chaos” up until the moment they release the beast back into the water. Shark and human safety is their priority in this madness, and I couldn’t help but admire the way they (literally) tackle sharks in the name of (figuratively) tackling the global problem of shark conservation. 

Today was CRAZY. I straddled a shark with the shark burn to prove it. #ajtechknow #bahamas

Let’s rewind—two days before I jumped the shark.

Day 1

“How do you conserve sharks?”

I asked this to Dr. Neil Hammershlag as we were loading up the gear onto the Shear Water, a shark diving vessel that would be our rocking home for the next five days. 

Allow this cup of soda sitting on a table to demonstrate just how rocky our boat has been these last 5 days at sea. #dramamine

He gave me a smirking, oh-you’ll-see look and replied, “We need to get to know sharks better.” Neil is the head of the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation program at University of Miami, and he let us tag along on his shark research expedition to Tiger Beach with a team he hand picked.

As researchers like Neil learn more about sharks, they can use that knowledge to educate the public and inform policy makers all in an effort to cut down on the estimated 100 million sharks that are killed by humans every year.

Seems like a simple enough plan, but how do you get to know sharks? They are elusive, mysterious giants of the oceans that can be very hard to find in the vast ocean, and that’s where the controlled chaos of straddling-a-shark-to-study-it comes in.

"If you stick your hand in a shark's mouth you're going to want some long pliers." We're loading up gear for 5 days at sea for a tiger shark research expedition in the #Bahamas.

For each of the 15 tiger sharks that were captured and analyzed on this trip, about 30 experiments are being done on them at once. Blood samples, fin clips, measurements, sonograms, GPS tags, acoustic tags and more—all to provide a more complete, broad understanding of sharks and their natural history.

They prioritize those precious minutes on the platform with each shark, and they can do that because of the diverse, impressive team the Neil put together. I couldn’t wait to see them in action.

Day 2

After setting out drum lines with gnarly looking chunks of fish as bait, they were finally bringing in the first tiger shark of the expedition. I’m fairly certain the universe itself started pumping adrenaline.

I leaned over the side of the boat to watch the team get to work. There was shouting, falling, hustling, jumping, cutting, measuring—it was like the most intense NASCAR pit stop of the ocean on the race to conserve sharks.

David Shiffman, a PhD student under Neil and a vocal shark advocate, came to be known to me as “data-sheet-master-David” as he recorded each of the shouted numbers for measurements and tags.

While Neil ran the show with the captured shark, David likened himself to the air traffic controller who helped keep an eye on and record everything from the stern of the boat. “This place is amazing,” he said. “Shark heaven.” Though he’s worked on many shark expeditions before, this was David’s first time to this Tiger Beach location.

Shark heaven it was, and they aim to keep it that way.

Day 4

Shark research is intense research. This squad of tough, sharp scientists took it on with exceptional scientific approach. Within that team were undergrads, grad students and professors. Men and women. Ecologists, morphologists, and molecular biologists.

The question of “how do you get to know sharks?” is answered through diversity, and resulted in a multitude of approaches for the specialists on the team, all taking different routes pointing towards that one answer—how to actually conserve sharks.

What can the length-to-dorsal fin ratio tell us about how far they will travel? How do fat storage levels change after giving birth? Why are there so many female tiger sharks in that area? What are they feeding on? Do sharks have individual personalities or do they all do pretty much the same thing?

During meal time, I’d sit and listen as they chatted and wondered what their data meant. Without even having analyzed the blood work or isotope samples, which can point to what they are feeding on, they were already coming up with some fascinating hypotheses on what these sharks are doing.

It was amazing to me how little is actually known about sharks, and with these data they should be able to drastically increase the foundation of knowledge on these marvelous creatures.

While I’m sure they spend their time doing tedious work in the lab looking forward to being out on a boat again, by the end of the expedition I could see them rubbing their bruises and looking forward to being back in the lab. Not just for the well-deserved rest they needed, but to really start analyzing the samples, running numbers, and comparing their results to the movements of the individual sharks they have been and will continue to track via GPS and underwater acoustic sensors.

While the expedition is over, the real work is just beginning. As science goes, every answer they get will lead to more and more interesting questions, helping us get closer to finding better methods and policies to conserve our oceans. While the hard work of these scientists can help us get there, we still need action from the rest of the world to actually make a difference. 

Finally heading back to port in the US. Was such an honor to be able to join the RJ Dunlap shark research team, so many moments on this trip I'll never forget. I have a new appreciation and soft spot for those giant beasts known as sharks.

Day 34

It’s been just over a month since I joined that shark team for those thrilling, challenging five days. The shark burn injuries (what they call shark-skin cuts) have healed and left my shins and arms with scars that have quite the story to tell.

The passion of Neil’s squad of shark scientists was contagious. I’ve got shark conservation fever, and hope to pass it to you. 

Leaving the expedition made me miss my days of working in the field—beaten to exhaustion every night, the camaraderie, the team getting more unified and motivated for every challenge and discovery.

In the office, we’ve spent hours making sure the episode tells a story worthy of the dedication we saw. 

#Sharks episode is in the edit bay! Coming together nicely, one dorsal fin and toothy smile at a time.

Part science, part excitement, and heavy on the characters we met. Spend five minutes with any of them, and your view on sharks is guaranteed to change. We hope you’ll spend the 30 minutes with us on Saturday night, and maybe get some motivation to join them in the field and get some shark-burn scars for yourself.


Watch “TechKnow” Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. ET/4:30 p.m. PT.


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