Y’all have been with me for all of my shark adventures over the years – spending Shark Week 2012 in the whale shark tank at the Georgia Aquarium, swimming with a friendly lil Bahamian shark the day before my wedding and experiencing the ultimate 30th birthday thrill while shark cage diving in South Africa – so you know I’m serious about my sharks. I’m always on the hunt for the next epic apex predator of the sea experience and this time, to my great satisfaction, one swam right to me.
The moment I found out OCEARCH, the world’s premier shark research vessel, was returning to for a second expedition in Jacksonville, which just happens to be the home of Angie Away Base Camp, one thing was certain:
I HAD TO GET ON THAT SHIP.
But why Jacksonville? The satellite tracks of two of OCEARCH’s tagged white sharks – Mary Lee and Katharine – first lead the team to Jacksonville in 2013, where they met Lydia, a 14-foot, 2,000-pound mature female shark. Since her tagging, she’s traveled more than 35,000 miles from my hometown to the northeastern Atlantic.
Lydia’s tagging, 2013, Jacksonville, Florida | Photo courtesy of OCEARCH
Based on the patterns of these three sharks, Jacksonville seems to be on a shark game trail of sorts, and scientists want to know more.
Mary Lee (orange), Katharine (yellow) and Lydia (red). These girls seem to have a bit of wanderlust!
With assignments from my local editors and producers in hand, I coordinated with the OCEARCH crew to go out on Day 2 of the expedition. Here’s how it went:
Thursday, March 17, 2016
5:00 a.m: Rise and shine – not like I was asleep anyhow. TOO STOKED. Would we tag a Great White Shark today? And would the crew name it Angie for their good luck charm? I would die on the spot, I am not kidding. I make sure I have all my camera gear, appropriate attire for cold, hot or rainy weather, lunch and snacks, sunscreen and Dramamine. Lots of Dramamine, just in case it’s a rough day on the Atlantic.
6:00 a.m: Depart Angie Away Base Camp for Fernandina Beach Marina.
7:00 a.m: I arrive at the marina 90 minutes early. Whoops. I’m way too excited to be allowed out in public. I walk around Old Town Fernandina as the sun comes up to get my enthusiasm under control. IT DOESN’T WORK because I’ve already had a Diet Dr. Pepper and a latte from Starbucks. God help the scientists when this over-caffeinated psycho shark stalker boards the ship.
8:30 a.m: The tender arrives to transport me and a few others to the M/V OCEARCH, a former Bering Sea crabber, anchored just outside the jetties. It’s an easy 15-minute ride, and we pass historic Fort Clinch on the right and untouched Cumberland Island National Seashore with its elusive wild horses on the left. It looks like it’s going to be a beautiful day with calm seas – whew!
9:00 a.m: Ship Manager Brandon Eyre welcomes us aboard, gives a quick rundown of safety procedures and ship details. The water is calm and the temperature is perfect.
9:15 a.m: Chris Berger, OCEARCH President, explains a bit of background on the mission and what makes this particular expedition so special. I’m beside myself and soaking up every detail. After traveling all around the world since 2007, from Australia to South Africa to the Galapagos to Chile, the OCEARCH team will stay on the East Coast of the U.S. for the next three years, tagging sharks, gathering data and using it to map out sensible conservation policies with lawmakers in D.C.
9:30 a.m: FINS SPOTTED off the back of the ship! BAH. It’s just dolphins. Normally I’d be pretty jazzed to see a pod of more than a dozen of these guys, but today I wanted to shoo them off. The only fins I want to see are Great Whites’.
10:00 a.m: Scientists, students and cameramen are all over the ship, gathering content and discussing data. I’m surprised at how much I already know about shark science, and realize much of that comes from following OCEARCH expeditions over the past few years. In addition to all its work on the high seas, OCEARCH provides a STEM curriculum for students that syncs up with the shark tracker. If science had been this exciting when I was a kid, I might’ve paid better attention in class!
10:15 a.m. The Coast Guard radios with a few questions. “So, uh, what are you guys up to out there?” The captain puts their mind at ease and explains the mission. “We look like suspicious characters, but we’re the good kind!”
11:00 a.m. Up in the cockpit, I have an extended chat about shark data with Camrin Braun, an MIT doctoral candidate, and Dr. Jim Gelsleichter from the University of North Florida Shark Biology Program, which started in 2009. Dr. Jim teaches a class called Biology of Sharks and Rays, which I plan to sneak into next semester. Had this program existed in Jacksonville when I went to college, this would be a very different blog!
Dr. Jimmy is very kind to listen to all my theories about human/shark socialization, the difference between South African and North Atlantic shark populations and my thoughts on white shark attacks. Like, really, really kind. Eventually I figure I should let the scientists get back to science, so I make my way down to the deck to wander around and take photos.
11:45 a.m. The fishing experts on the Contender, a smaller boat that cruises around the vicinity searching for Great Whites find something out there… but it turns out to be lil sandbar shark. Bring your large friends, fella!
12:30 p.m. Chef whips up some delicious soup in the kitchen. Everyone on the ship sings his culinary praises but they warn unequivocally, don’t invade his kitchen space!
1:00 p.m. A small plane circles overhead and the team waves – it’s the Right Whale researchers volunteering their aerial resources to help spot sharks from above. Collaborations like this are incredibly helpful for OCEARCH.
2:00 p.m. Scientists and students hang out on deck, awaiting word from the fishing team that they’ve spotted a fin. Still no sign of a Great White.
2:30 p.m. Chris Fischer, OCEARCH expedition leader, films an interview about his passion for this project. It’s truly stirring to see someone who has leveraged his life’s work and savings just to ensure scientists around the world have a chance to conduct this important research.
It makes me wish I ran a big company, like Costa or Yeti – big sponsors for #ExpeditionJAX – that could in turn support an expedition or two. An Angie Away-sponsored expedition wouldn’t get the M/V OCEARCH out of the marina. (That’s ok. Next time OCEARCH comes to town, everyone can stay at my new house & we can all go shark-tagging at the beach every day.)
3:00 p.m. The crew decides to do a test run of the lift, a mechanism that holds up to 75,000 lbs. of shark & scientists concurrently, and has helped the team to tag more than 250 sharks around the world. If the Contender had a shark on the line, they’d carefully bring it over to the lift where the scientists and crew would take blood and cartilage samples and attach satellite trackers.
Once a shark is on the lift, the team has less than about 15 minutes to collect everything before returning it back to the deep. The process has been likened to a NASCAR pit crew – everyone has their role and they perform with acute precision.
Only when the shark swims safely off the lift does everyone erupt into applause and cheers.
3:30 p.m. The luck of the Irish is NOT with us today.
4:00 p.m. The weather starts to get iffy, so the ship guests call it a day and head back to the marina. We hadn’t seen a single shark and I was pretty bummed. It was not the epic adventure I had in mind, and I didn’t get a Great White Shark named after me. But still, just being onboard the M/V OCEARCH and spending a day in the company of the brilliant shark minds & the passionate crew was worth every minute. Great White Shark tagging is like finding a needle in a haystack. In a three week expedition, the team would be lucky to tag between 1-5 sharks. And hey, it was only Day 2.
7:00 p.m. Back at Angie Away Base Camp, Rick makes us grilled cobia for dinner and surprises me with some Greg “The Shark” Norman wine to cheer me up after my shark-less day. It’ll have to do!
Friday, March 18, 2016
3:00 p.m. The OCEARCH crew tags a tiger shark. I watch live on Periscope, bereft. It’s no Great White, but tigers are on my shark bucket list, too. I’m now considering renting a dinghy and cruising back out to the vessel…
I’ve gotten so many questions in the past few days about how to get involved with OCEARCH, so here are a few tips!
- OCEARCH is very active online so you can keep up with expeditions in real time on Twitter, Periscope, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram. You can even ask the scientists and crew questions while they’re out on the ship. They’re an incredibly open, approachable group, so don’t be shy – say hello & send them your encouragement!
- Download the Global Shark Tracker app to keep an eye on Mary Lee, Lydia, Katherine and the newly tagged tiger shark Georgia. When sharks surface, their satellite tags ping and you can follow their adventures. They’re the travel bloggers of the shark kingdom.
- Join (or support) the Gills Club. The Gills Club harnesses girls’ passion for sharks, nature and the environment by giving them the opportunity to engage in projects focused on public shark perception. This next generation of shark enthusiasts will make sure we get to eat seafood in 10 years, instead of wiping out the top of the food chain due to fear and misinformation.
- Tag sharks on your own. If you fish and find yourself reeling in any of the 15 species of sharks, you can get tags from NOAA Southeast Fisheries to tag them and assist in local research.
- Donate or sponsor an expedition. Get in touch with OCEARCH if you want to help out financially, particularly if you’re a wealthy, bored philanthropist with a heart of gold and a vault of gold. The UNF Shark Program needs a new boat, too, so if you’ve got one you’re not using, drop it off at Dr. Jim’s office.
I’ll update y’all just as soon as I hear from the OCEARCH team if they get a Great White – so watch this space!
So what do you think? Are you a shark-lover or did JAWS wreck you for life? Would you like to go out on the M/V OCEARCH? What questions do you have for the scientists?
5 thoughts on “My Day Aboard the M/V OCEARCH for #ExpeditionJAX”
I’m sorry that you didn’t see any sharks, but it still sounds like such a cool experience! I love all kinds of marine life, including sharks, and am also a bit of a science geek so I would absolutely love to do something like this.
Oh man girl, I need to get you out to MV so we can watch Jaws, take a Jaws tour, and talk nonstop about sharks the entire time. This post cracked me up — your ninety minute early arrival time reminded me of our very early departure for the Jacksonville Amtrak station you were so suspicious of. Ha! Good times 🙂
You looked so happy! It seemed like a fun trip.
Looks like you had a lot of fun, I watch the OCEARCH from Afghanistan,( when time permits.)
I have been following Mary Lee , for quiet a while, I looked at her this morning at 0400 after reading your adventure , and speaking with Aunt Peggy, she was between North Carolina and Bermuda. It is a great site and these guys are really dedicated to their job, wish there was more of them.
Oh , looking good in the Costa wear, and maybe better luck next time,
That is why they call it FISH not CATCH. lol
Tight Lines, and congrratulations on the new house.
I’m so sorry that you didn’t see any sharks but what a awesome experience!