Shark Tagging with Palmer Trinity Middle School

By Grace Roskar, SRC intern

The morning of Friday, April 29th was already proving that it would be a warm day as we set off for a day of shark tagging. Our guests, students from Palmer Trinity Middle School and Kelly and David, two citizen scientists from RSMAS, met the SRC team at Crandon Marina at 8:30 a.m. After trip leader David Shiffman gave a quick speech on what the day would be like for our student participants, we all gathered on the Diver’s Paradise boat to get underway. Captain Eric motored us out to the Safety Valve, a range of sand flats and tidal channels in Biscayne Bay that lies among the Stiltsville houses.

On our way out to the site, we noticed a dorsal fin cutting through the calm turquoise waters. A few seconds later, the large caudal fin appeared as well. SRC Masters student Robbie, who just published a paper on the subject, confirmed it was a hammerhead, presumably feeding on something in the shallows! We quickly started deploying gear in hopes to be able to catch and sample this hammerhead. We let the lines soak for one hour before retrieving them, and in the meantime, kept our glued to the the calm waters in case the hammerhead’s fins appeared again.

 A hammerhead fin appears at the surface.

A hammerhead fin appears at the surface.

An hour later, Palmer Trinity students got their first opportunity to participate by helping the SRC team pull in the baited drumlines. The hammerhead was not on any of the first ten drumlines, but we did catch a beautiful healthy blacktip! Pat and David secured the blacktip onto the deck of the boat and readied it for the quick work-up process. The students helped test the shark’s nictitating membrane to measure the shark’s stress levels, took several body length measurements, took a sample of the dorsal fin, and inserted a tag underneath the shark’s dorsal fin. Several other morphological measurements and a blood sample were taken from the shark before it was safely released back into the clear blue waters of Biscayne Bay.

A Palmer Trinity student helps deploy a drumline.

A Palmer Trinity student helps deploy a drumline.

On the next set of deployed drumlines, we pulled up a nurse shark that was on the smaller side. It was brought right onto the deck of the boat again, and after being safely secured, the next set of Palmer Trinity students helped with the work-up process again. This time, all the students were able to come down and touch the nurse shark, feeling its mosaic of dermal denticles. Because nurse sharks do not use ram ventilation to breathe, we were able to take a few minutes to let the students come down and feel the beautiful shark before needing to release it back into the water.

A water pump is placed in the shark’s mouth so that oxygenated seawater can flow over its gills during our quick work-up process. Here, it is evident where the blacknose shark gets its name!

A water pump is placed in the shark’s mouth so that oxygenated seawater can flow over its gills during our quick work-up process. Here, it is evident where the blacknose shark gets its name!

The next shark pulled up was a blacknose shark, a rarer species for the SRC team! They are a smaller shark species, and stress easily, so we ensured to do a quick workup for the shark’s health and safety. Blacknose sharks are known to reside in murkier waters, which means they are not often seen and rarely photographed. SRC team member member Pat was able to get in the water with the shark after its release, to film it swimming away in great condition. The calm and clear waters allowed for the students to look on from the boat as the shark swam away peacefully.

Overall, we caught three different species of shark, one of which was fairly rare for the SRC team to encounter, and saw a hammerhead feeding in the shallows. It was a great day of tagging with our participants from Palmer Trinity and RSMAS, and we hope to have them out again with us soon!

Shark tagging with St. Thomas Aquinas

By Grace Roskar, SRC Intern

The morning of April 23rd, 2016 felt like a summer day with its warmth and sunshine. St. Thomas Aquinas High School from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and Dalton Hesley of UM’s Rescue a Reef Program joined the SRC team for a day of shark tagging. The group of young marine biology enthusiasts and our citizen scientist Dalton met the SRC team at Crandon Marina at 8 am to load the boat and get underway.
As we motored out to “Sandbar Palace,” a tagging site off of Miami Beach, trip leader and SRC graduate student Jake explained what a day of shark tagging would be like and the importance of shark research and conservation. Meanwhile, the SRC prepared drumlines with barracuda for bait. Extensions lines were also attached to the drumlines, as Sandbar Palace was considered an offshore site and the drumlines were deployed in 80-100 feet of water. The St. Thomas Aquinas students helped deploy the first set of ten drumlines and while they were soaking for an hour, Captain Nick motored the boat to a spot for swimming. Students and SRC members alike took a refreshing dip in the cool waters as a respite from the heat of the day. Once the swim break was over, we motored back to Sandbar Palace to pick up the drumlines in hopes there would be some sharks on them!
On line number 1, there was a scalloped hammerhead! This species, Sphyrna lewini, is classified as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species , and the Central & Southwest Atlantic population is listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) . Thus, it is rare for SRC to see scalloped hammerheads, so it was quite the lucky catch! Due to the status of scalloped hammerheads and their tendency to become stressed more easily than other species, the SRC team performed an in-water workup of the male shark as quickly as possible to ensure a safe and expedient release of the shark. The 2.37 meter shark received a tag, and was released in a timely manner. The excitement onboard was palpable, coming from both the students and the SRC crew. The team was feeling extremely grateful to be able to sample such an incredible species, and most of the students were able to lay their eyes upon a hammerhead species for the first time.

A scalloped hammerhead is carefully secured in the water for a quick workup process

A scalloped hammerhead is carefully secured in the water for a quick workup process

To everyone’s surprise, line 4 had another scalloped hammerhead! The SRC team repeated the same in-water workup process in order to safely sample the 2.5 meter shark. We felt extremely grateful to have been able to sample not one, but two of these graceful apex predators while still on the first set of drumlines. Line 6 offered us another surprise- this time an octopus! As we pulled in the line, we noticed an octopus had suctioned itself onto the piece of barracuda bait. SRC intern Shannon carefully placed the octopus into a bucket of seawater to utilize the learning opportunity for the students. Shannon quickly explained their feeding mechanisms, basic anatomy, and other interesting cephalopod facts while the students peered into the bucket to examine the beautiful creature for a few minutes before it was safely placed back into the ocean.

St. Thomas Aquinas students helped pull in the rest of the set of the drumlines, and on line 10 was a great hammerhead! The great hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran) is also classified as endangered on the IUCN Red List[1] and we were grateful to see our second hammerhead species of the day. Again, an in-water workup was performed by the SRC team to ensure the quickest release possible for the biggest hammerhead of the day: 2.66 meters, or about 8.7 feet. We motored back to line 1 to pick up the second set of drumlines and picked up a sandbar shark (Squalus plumbeus), our third species of the day! The SRC team carefully brought the shark onto the platform at the stern of the boat and the St. Thomas Aquinas students finally had the chance to help work up a shark. The students helped test the shark’s nictitating membrane to test the shark’s stress levels, took several length measurements, took a sample of the dorsal fin, and inserted a tag into the shark’s dorsal fin. Several other morphological measurements and a blood sample were taken from the shark before it was safely released.

: SRC Masters student Jake secures a sandbar shark while a water pump is placed in its mouth to flush oxygenated seawater over the gills. This helps keep the sharks calm and healthy during the quick workup process

SRC Masters student Jake secures a sandbar shark while a water pump is placed in its mouth to flush oxygenated seawater over the gills. This helps keep the sharks calm and healthy during the quick workup process

Next on the line, a nurse shark was pulled up, one of the most common species that SRC is able to sample around the waters of Miami. This 2.32 meter nurse shark was also worked up by a team of St. Thomas Aquina students and the SRC team. After a quick workup, students were able to take a few moments to touch the shark and feel its dermal denticles, which are scales that are basically modified teeth, as dermal denticles means “small skin teeth.” Nurse shark dermal denticles are coarser than other shark species’ dermal denticles and look like a mosaic of a variety of brown and gray shades. On the same set of drumlines, three more sandbar sharks were pulled up and sampled.

Thanks St. Thomas Aquinas and Dalton for coming out with us for an amazing day of shark tagging!

Thanks St. Thomas Aquinas and Dalton for coming out with us for an amazing day of shark tagging!

On the third set of drumlines, yet another sandbar and scalloped hammerhead were pulled up – making it the third scalloped hammerhead of the day. The entire SRC team was in awe that we were so lucky to see three individuals of this rare and beautiful species, in just one day! The SRC crew members that have been with the program for a substantial amount of time concluded that this was indeed a rare sight and estimated that the program has probably caught less than ten scalloped hammerheads in its entire existence—which made our three for the day an even more incredible statistic. After ten sharks of four different species on thirty lines, the team and high school group was elated and grateful for such a spectacular day of shark tagging. Although it was a hot summer-like day, the high school students’ spirits remained high throughout the day and the SRC team was honored to have such enthusiastic guests helping us out on the boat for the day. We look forward to having St. Thomas Aquinas back out with the Shark Research and Conservation Program again soon!

Shark Tagging with the Children’s Wish Foundation

By Tim Hogan, SRC Intern

On the morning of Friday, April 8th, a crew of 10 SRC interns and their captain gathered together to prepare for a day of serendipity and many sharks. Our guests, associated with the Children’s Wish Foundation of Canada, came along to meet our team leader, David Shiffman, and get some hands-on experience with the boat and sharks. The volunteer’s enthusiasm and eagerness to learn made them fit right in with the rest of the crew. After preparations were made, the Diver’s Paradise made its way to the Sandbar Palace, a deep reef with high productivity. It had previously been the site of very successful, high-catch trips, and hoped the same would occur on this day.

The second line we pulled up had tension, meaning that something was on the line. As it neared the boat, he was identified as a nurse shark, one of the more commonly caught species. This one, however, was extremely energetic and acrobatic, and began taking various evasive maneuvers, primarily consisting of twirls, flips, and twists. Eventually, he fulfilled his dream of becoming an escape artist, detaching from our line with no damage done to itself. Even though we couldn’t get any data from it, the early shark enhanced our optimism, the anticipation built with each retrieved line.

Our patience was quickly rewarded 5 lines later, as an even larger nurse was brought in with the buoy. This time, we managed to bring it onto the platform, and got the chance to collect our measurements and a blood sample. Our volunteers were eager to get involved and helped with the workup. During the downtime between lines, the volunteers took the opportunity to observe the blood analysis procedure, and also measured water samples.

 Shark Intern Leila AtallahBenson showing volunteers our blood analysis protocol

Shark Intern Leila AtallahBenson showing volunteers our blood analysis protocol

As the day progressed, we only seemed to get luckier with each drumline we pulled. On the second line on the third set, we could see the distinct dorsal fin of a great hammerhead approach the boat from the surface. The titan measured up to 328 cm (about 10’9” in the imperial system, which is basically twice my height), and it was released in good condition after our protocol. Less than five lines later, as if we received the blessings from the ocean itself, we brought in a scalloped hammerhead. Distinguished by a more curved head, it is one of the rarest sharks found on trips, and is caught three to five times a year. We went through our protocol quickly and cautiously to ensure it returned to the ocean in the best possible condition.

While we were perfectly content with our first two sets, our final ten lines had us end with a bang. Starting strong, we brought in the namesake of our site, the sandbar shark. The personal favorite of David, he was ecstatic beyond description as we went through our protocol. It was easy to see why, with its faint, iridescent skin and gorgeous color. Two lines later, we managed to pull in the most common shark in South Florida, the Atlantic sharpnose shark. Sharpnoses are typically much smaller out of most of the other species we catch. This one was in particular had a length of 116.5 centimeters, which is almost a meter shorter than the next smallest one.

The sharpnose is the most common shark in South Florida, and is also one of the smallest. The pump flows oxygenated water over its gills, ensuring that it can breathe while we do our workup

The sharpnose is the most common shark in South Florida, and is also one of the smallest. The pump flows oxygenated water over its gills, ensuring that it can breathe while we do our workup

The remaining time was more calm, though we did manage to bring in another nurse shark. At the end of the day, it was difficult to not appreciate the sheer diversity of sharks. Of the nine sharks we brought in, there were four nurses, two great hammerheads, one sandbar, one sharpnose, and one scalloped hammerhead. Our volunteers were able to see sharks in their many shapes, sizes, and functions. We returned to shore knowing the day was extremely successful, and more than grateful that we got as lucky as we did.

Our volunteers gathered around one of our Nurse Sharks after taking data and measurements, with interns Jake Jerome, team leader David Schiffman, and intern Emily Nelson

Our volunteers gathered around one of our Nurse Sharks after taking data and measurements, with interns Jake Jerome, team leader David Shiffman, and intern Emily Nelson

Shark tagging with Firebrand Events

 

By Julia Whidden, SRC Intern

On Monday, March 14th, the SRC Crew went to sea with assistance from Firebrand events. We fished the shallow waters (~ 10 feet deep) of Safety Valve, an area of sand flats and tidal channels that connect Biscayne Bay to the Atlantic Ocean. Research dates the formation of this bay to between 5,000 and 2,400 years ago, while it was only “discovered” to European forces by the Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Léon in 1513. It was around this time that explorers and fishers of the sea began to record their varied superstitions. Their expeditions were plagued by many sources, including – but not limited to: garlic, actual plagues, the number 13, and bananas.

An aerial photo of Safety Valve, the region of shallow sand flats and tidal channels that delimit the entrance of the Atlantic Ocean to Biscayne Bay. The SRC team fishes this spot often.

An aerial photo of Safety Valve, the region of shallow sand flats and tidal channels that delimit the entrance of the Atlantic Ocean to Biscayne Bay. The SRC team fishes this spot often.

While the choppy water kept us from the high seas, and our fishing was for research purposes and not sustenance, we managed to fall victim to the old sailor’s curse of the bananas. Believe it or not, SRC and Diver’s Paradise boat Captains strictly enforce the “NO BANANAS” rule. Not only are they forbidden in the contract that our passengers sign, but even mention of them by SRC grad student and banana-enthusiast Pat Goebel is usually enough to get the team riled up. On this fateful Monday, SRC crew discovered – after pulling up the first set of 10 lines empty – that each of the nearly 20 Firebrand passengers had been packed lunches with… (cue dramatic music)… bananas. Diver’s Paradise Captain Eric Cartaya took matters into his own hands and collected the remaining evil fruit from a very confused set of passengers. The bananas were piled on the bait-cutting table, smashed to bits, and swiftly tossed out to sea. The passengers remained confused. After explaining to them some of the varied and nonsensical origin stories of the banana curse, we had made it back to buoy 1 of the second set of lines.

Diver’s Paradise Captain Eric Cartaya rids our boat of the evil bananas.

Diver’s Paradise Captain Eric Cartaya rids our boat of the evil bananas.

Lo and behold, our luck changed and we caught a 1.52 m blacktip shark! This male blacktip was very freshly caught, having only been on the line for 8 minutes. We conducted a full work-up with assistance from our Firebrand crew, including measuring, tagging, fin clipping, and reflex testing. After releasing this blacktip in great condition, we sped off towards our next buoy.

SRC crew Robbie Roemer and Julia Whidden release our first catch of the day, a male blacktip shark.

SRC crew Robbie Roemer and Julia Whidden release our first catch of the day, a male blacktip shark.

We pulled up another 8 empty lines before feeling any tension on our last line of the second set. This time, we had caught a 2.3 m male nurse shark. The most interesting characteristic of this male nurse was its recently mated claspers. Claspers are the external sexual organs of male elasmobranchs (sharks, skates and rays), and have friendly features such as hooks and barbs that are used to hold onto the female during copulation. Males may only copulate successfully with a female once it has reached sexual maturity, which is physically manifested as fully calcified (hardened) claspers. In male nurse sharks, sexual maturity is reached when the total body length is around 2.1 m. This male nurse shark that we processed showed signs of having recently copulated, which appear as fresh mating scars on the male’s claspers. This type of sexual maturity data is useful in identifying the breeding requirements, including seasonality and habitat preferences, of local shark populations. After finishing the workup, the SRC team released the nurse shark in great condition.

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The mating scars seen on our second catch of the day, a male nurse shark.

Our final 10 lines of the day proved fruitless, but the SRC crew and Firebrand passengers felt lucky to have caught even 2 sharks considering the bad luck that started their day. While it’s difficult to know precisely which life lessons were learned by passengers and crew of the boat, ie. don’t get between a boat Captain and a banana, I personally took this opportunity to learn “The Bananas Aboard Repentance Prayer,” in case I ever need to appeel to the shark gods again.

The Bananas Aboard Repentance Prayer

Oh great Konpira
please, hear my plea
I am sorry for my mistake
A banana I brought to sea

it was an honest gesture
a noble means of nutrition
I had no ill intent
I brought fruit of my own volition

Please forgive my idiocy
I meant my friends no harm
We just want to go fishing
and go home with a sore arm

We beg of you to release the curse
upon which I have brought
In your honor I consume these bananas
a sacrifice all for nought!

Sources:
http://miamifishing.com/bananas-and-fishing-boats

http://www.discoverbiscaynebay.org/history-and-ecology.htm
https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/6/6f/Biscayne_Bay_Safety_Valve.png

Shark Tagging with Grand Classroom Ohio

By Rachel Skubel, SRC Intern

There was a special feeling among the shark research crew before setting off today – a pregnant fog had rolled over Miami, giving way to a magnificent sunrise as we drove in to the marina. It was the Ides of March, and on this iteration the ocean was so still and glassy it looked like a calm lake. Fortunately for our purposes, these conditions were perfect for heading some miles offshore of Miami into the Atlantic, enhancing our chances of sampling large pelagic species like great hammerhead sharks. Accompanying us was a group of highschool students from Ohio, so we were excited to share the wonders of our subtropical marine environment with these northerners.

Immediately after setting our first round of ten lines, we headed back to line #1 because it was on the move – was something dragging it? Yes! Our first shark of the day was a beautiful great hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini), a special and valuable source of blood and morphological samples for our labs’ projects. We had the fortune of witnessing a vibrant sailfish breach next to the boat as we maneuvered this animal in – it appeared that all sorts of oceanic predators were abundant through this fishing site.

A dusky shark (Carcharhinus obscurus). The pump provides the animal with highly oxygenated water throughout the quick workup.

A dusky shark (Carcharhinus obscurus). The pump provides the animal with highly oxygenated water throughout the quick workup.

Shortly after releasing this shark, we came upon a massive bull shark – another amazing large coastal shark we are always excited to sample! We seemed to be in great luck with our choice of site. The best, however, was yet to come. The next time we had a fish on a line, we were all excited to see what seemed to be another great hammerhead shark – but why was the dorsal fin smaller? And the coloration seemed bronzy! Indeed, our hopes were confirmed when we pulled in a scalloped hammerhead shark (Sphyrna lewini) – one of only a few our lab has ever worked with! This was a truly rare opportunity for tissue samples and morphological measurements. As excited as we were with this species, we were soon to encounter a dusky shark – the fourth in SRC’s history!

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A great hammerhead shark (Sphyrna mokarran) is released after tissue samples and measurements are taken.

Along with these animals, we also sampled a second great hammerhead shark – which we satellite tagged, a nurse shark, and the first sandbar sharks of 2016. Truly, this was an immensely valuable day for our lab’s projects and we were happy to have shared it with a lucky group of highschool students. Stay tuned for this great hammerhead shark’s location on our live satellite-tracking page at http://sharkresearch.rsmas.miami.edu/education/virtual-learning/tracking-sharks!

Shark Tagging with Felix Varela Senior High School

By Shannon Moorhead, SRC Intern

On Saturday March 5th, the SRC team was joined by students and faculty from Felix Varela Senior High School- and what a day it was!  When I arrived at Crandon Marina, I was afraid that questionable weather would keep us inshore, but our trip leader settled on a location: Soldier Key in Biscayne National Park, right on the edge of where Biscayne Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean.  It was a spot I had never been to, but my teammates claimed to have caught some very interesting things there, so I was quite excited.  The team loaded up the boat and once our guests arrived and the pre-trip introductions were completed, we were off!

When we arrived at Soldier Key, the team deployed our fish trap and the first set of ten drumlines in about ten feet of water.  While we waited for the lines to soak, our trip leader Jake Jerome briefed the students on the shark workup procedure and how they would be helping us tag the shark and collect data.  The first, and very important, data collection the students helped with was “environmentals”: recordings of the temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen content of the seawater around our site.  Environmental data is recorded for each set of lines deployed and can give us important insight into factors that may significantly affect shark abundance in the localized area.  Once this was complete and the lines had soaked for an hour, we went to retrieve our first set!

The decision to go to Soldier Key immediately paid off when we pulled up a male nurse shark on the very first line!  I had the great honor of “jumping head” on this shark, which means I was responsible for keeping its head in place.  I never realized how difficult the job was: this shark would not stop moving and it took four of us to secure him to the platform!  Once he had settled down, the Varela high students assisted us with the working up the shark, while SRC team members drew blood and took morphological measurements.  First, students helped us measure the shark, which came out to 231 cm, about 7 and a half feet!  Next, a mark-recapture tag was inserted just beneath the shark’s dorsal fin: this will let us know if we catch the shark again and has the lab’s phone number on it so fishermen can contact us, and hopefully provide us with some data, if they catch the shark.  Finally, a student took a small clipping of the shark’s dorsal fin, which can provide us with information on what the shark is eating via stable isotope analysis.  When the process was complete, the shark was released back into the water and we moved on to the second line.

A Varela High student helps insert a mark-recapture tag into a nurse shark.]

A Varela High student helps insert a mark-recapture tag into a nurse shark.

But the fun didn’t stop there: on the second line we discovered a gigantic bull shark!  The likely pregnant female was a struggle to get onto the boat, because of how heavy she was, but was very cooperative once we had lifted her on to the platform.  She was so big that when Jake tried to switch to the other side of the shark I had to lift his leg over the dorsal fin for him because he couldn’t get it high enough!  The big girl measured 287 centimeters, almost 9 and a half feet!  After a quick workup, we got her back in the water and retrieved the rest of the first set, but unfortunately there were no more sharks to be seen.  We reset the lines and the waiting began again.

SRC graduate student Jake Jerome keeps the head of this massive female bull shark secure during the workup procedure.

SRC graduate student Jake Jerome keeps the head of this massive female bull shark secure during the workup procedure.

When we went to pick up the first drumline of the second set, we ran into a slight problem: we couldn’t find it!  After a brief search, we found the line #1 a quarter mile from where we had set it tangled with a crab trap.  The team and I were getting very excited; whatever had dragged our 40 pound drum a quarter mile must be huge.  And it was: as we pulled in the line a massive female great hammerhead slowly rose to the surface!  Once she was alongside the boat, SRC members took charge on the workup.  Our lab’s research has found that hammerheads get stressed more quickly than other shark species so during the workup the shark is left in the water and the workup is performed by the SRC staff to make sure it goes as quickly and smoothly as possible.  In the interest of time, the shark was not measured, but the team estimated she was 13 feet long because she was longer than our 12 foot platform!  Luckily, the team had time to attach an external acoustic tag to the shark’s dorsal fin.  Acoustic tags send out a ping which can be picked up by receivers placed underwater around Florida and along the east coast by SRC and other labs.  This gives us extremely valuable information about the movement patterns of this highly migratory species.  Once the tag was attached this beautiful behemoth of a shark was released successfully!

View from above and below the water as SRC graduate student Robbie Roemer prepares to fix this great hammerhead shark with an external acoustic tag.

View from above and below the water as SRC graduate student Robbie Roemer prepares to fix this great hammerhead shark with an external acoustic tag.

View from above and below the water as SRC graduate student Robbie Roemer prepares to fix this great hammerhead shark with an external acoustic tag.

We reset line #1 and hauled in and redeployed the rest of set 2, on which there were no more sharks.  Set number 3 and our fish traps came up empty as well, but we weren’t very disappointed.  It may have only been a three shark day, but we were thrilled.  For several of us, those were the largest bull shark and largest hammerhead we had ever seen!  The students of Varela High seemed to share our excitement: not every day you get up close and personal with animals of that size!  It was an awesome trip, thanks to Varela High for the help and enthusiasm, can’t wait to have you guys out again!

Thanks for a great day Varela High!

Thanks for a great day Varela High!