Pelagic Shark Research Foundation
The World’s Online Marketplace
of the world’s most ancient apex predators, the Great
White Shark, made an appearance last November amongst
the fossilized shark teeth, Jaws posters, Hummel figurines,
Russian war memorabilia and the other offerings found
on eBay, “the world’s online marketplace.”
Fisherman Fred Arnaldi had caught a 14-foot long, 1800-pound
female great white, carcharadon carcharias, in
a halibut gill net in Morro Bay. Not quite sure what
to do with his catch, he contacted a fish merchant,
who then went where anyone would go these days to get
rid of something unusual- online.
Pelagic Shark Research Foundation (PSRF, a Santa Cruz
based organization), caught wind of the shark catch
when Pelagic member Jeff Rheinhardt witnessed the fishing
boat entering the harbor. Pelagic stepped in to stop
the bizarre auction- but not until bids for the shark
had reached more than 4,000 dollars. Director and co-
founder of PSRF (and a third generation American mariner),
Sean Van Sommeran appealed to the fisherman’s sensibilities
by explaining the ethical dubiousness of selling a protected
species, and by offering to repair his damaged net and
return the shark’s jaws to him following a necropsy,
or autopsy, of the unfortunate fish.
shark, which was named Pangaea, “after a dead continent”
according to Van Sommeran, was gift-wrapped in a blue
tarp and hauled via a flatbed pickup to the Department
of Fish and Game’s facilities at Long Marine Lab in
PSRF arranged a necropsy, an important event in the
field of white shark research because so few intact
specimens are available for thorough examination. Time
Magazine, National Geographic and the San Francisco
Chronicle, among other media representatives, documented
the packed, daylong procedure.
was a coup for Pelagic,” PSRF photographer Callaghan
Fritz- Cope explained before the autopsy.
Basking Shark Boat Ramps
Pelagic has always been a bit of a maverick operation.
In the world of multi-million dollar research grants
and legendary researchers like Burney Le Boeuf, (considered
to be the leading authority on Northern Elephant Seal
behavior), Team Pelagic, with their two 22-foot long
boats, is a comparatively small operation.
When asked by a young couple if he was one of the professors,
Van Sommeran responded, “No, I’m their stunt double.”
While the team has an assortment of members, students,
and assistants, Van Sommeran, Callaghan Fritz- Cope
and graduate student Scott Davis comprise the core of
Sommeran’s history over the last decade is inseparable
from the rise of Pelagic itself. Van Sommeran, 38, was
laid off from the Department of Fish and Game in 1989.
Before working on several fish studies projects with
DFG, he worked for the National Marine Fisheries, which
is a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
and Moss Landing Marine Lab aboard the research vessel,
‘Point Sur’. He also attended junior college; “I was
an anthropology major,” he says of his education, which
didn’t culminate in a formal degree.
DFG had bought colored and coded tags in the eighties
to begin a shark tagging program, but hadn’t used them
seriously due to a lack of funding. When Van Sommeran
lost his job, he asked DFG if he could conduct the tagging
operation on a volunteer basis.
1990, basking sharks, huge plankton eaters, had begun
entering Monterey Bay in numbers that hadn’t been witnessed
in decades. Known to be docile, the basking sharks became
objects of harassment by curious spectators. Pelagic
had been tagging the sharks, and was dismayed to find
that several arrows, sunk up to the feathers, were lodged
in the back of one of the giants. As the result of an
article that confused them with white sharks, more people
turned out to harass the creatures, some even using
them as “launch ramps for their boats.”
PSRF invited local media to come out on a skiff with
them to document the gentleness of the giants. “It turned
us into activists,” said Van Sommeran. They then contacted
several organizations, including Greenpeace and Earth
Island Institute, who eventually took on the Pelagic
Shark Research Foundation as a non-profit sub group.
1992, the White Shark Project, conducted off of Ano
Nuevo Island (about 20 miles north of Santa Cruz),
began. The objective was to photograph and tag as many
Great Whites as possible. Lamnidae, the family
to which white sharks belong, has been around for at
least 100 million years.
group has been tagging Whites since 1995. Although Van
Sommeran has been “full time Pelagic,” while working
odd jobs on a fishing charter, a sailboat, at a bookshop,
and for National Geographic and Discover to make ends
meet since 1992.
Staff photographer Callaghan Fritz- Cope also does not
possess a formal college degree. Yet the skills that
he has mastered are invaluable for his work with PSRF.
He is a dive master, a pilot, and rescue diver, as well
as an accomplished photographer and videographer. Fritz-
Cope has worked with National Geographic and
Discover, as well as the BBC. Currently,
he is working on a project in South America.
Tow headed, Kentuckian Scott Davis, meanwhile, owns
the honorable title of being the last graduate student
to ever study under Le Bouef before he retires. He is
working on his Masters degree in “large scale movement
patterns of white sharks.” Davis also works collaboratively
at the Farallon Islands north of San Francisco tracking
great whites off the coast of California. “Ideally,
we’d like to determine if the populations at Ano Nuevo
and the Farallons overlap,” he explains. Additionally,
Davis has previously tagged grizzlies in Wyoming and
worked as a field biologist for the Nature Conservancy
in Palau, Micronesia. Like Fritz- Cope, he is a photographer
who has worked with National Geographic, Discover
and the BBC. He is also a rescue diver, a
pilot, and divemaster.
This team seems more than qualified to handle documenting
and tagging 12 foot to twenty foot long sharks, boat
side, with a lance and a couple of cameras.
Shark Research Is not so Glamorous…
a typical winter morning between October and February,
Van Sommeran, a cherubic man with a deadpan humor, fires
up his 22 foot long Chris Craft boat,’ Pelagic 1’, at
its berth in the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor.
Predawn, he waits for someone to show up at the lone
gas tank, so he can put the $50-$60 worth of gas in
his boat for the approximately 40 mile round trip to
Ano Nuevo and back. With little funding money, the research
that Pelagic does is paid for largely out of the pockets
of its three principals and participants.
boat heads out of the harbor and into the protected
waters of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The
choppy 45-minute boat ride is typically quiet, with
the sun rising behind them.The hope on the way to Ano
Nuevo is that the weather will be favorable, the swells
small, and that the water will be clear and flat…and
that there will be shark activity.
can’t see them, but they can see us,” Van Sommeran joked
about the sharks on low visibility days. “They have
much more sophisticated apparatus for detection.”
Island is the winter home to California Sea Lions, and
one of the most significant rookeries and resting places
for northern elephant seals, which makes the island
a veritable smorgasboard for sharks.
There can be treacherous swells surrounding the island.
One break in particular, the “Chopping Block” as its
affectionately called, is notorious for disappearing
until PSRF staff are just about on top of it, with a
shark in sight, and then rearing up into a steep, ugly
sharks are lured to the side of the boat by a specially
permitted process (It is illegal to hunt, fish for,
pursue or otherwise harass White Sharks in California
waters, according to assembly bill 522). When one has
made contact with the lure, an ID photo is taken of
its dorsal and caudal fins, and GPS points are recorded.
The lure is then reeled in. At that point, the shark
hopefully passes close enough to the boat to be tagged
and have a tissue sample taken.
Occasionally, a shark will approach the boat with its
snout. “We don’t allow them to bump us. As we reel it
in, I am thinking two things: be prepared to tag the
shark, and/or fend it off with a gentle but firm nudge.”
Van Sommeran explains.
Davis adds, “For the most part, they are extremely passive
in their investigations.”
Nonetheless, Whites are very agile and can turn around
rapidly. They also engage in spy hopping, in which they
raise their entire head and upper torso above water
to look around. They are fast, even with bodies that
can reach twenty feet in length and 4500 pounds. “Dripping
wet, they probably reach 5,000 pounds,” says Van Sommeran.
Some Whites have even been seen breaching completely
out of the water.
Many days are spent bobbing in the small boat for hours
(seasickness is a common problem for students and reporters,
“but not for the seaworthy, salty dog,” according to
Davis), and then turning around, having seen nothing.
Van Sommeran often spends the lag time catching, photographing
and releasing fish for a guide to Monterey Bay rockfish
species that he plans to compile.
Until the Sharks Show Up…
Much of our fear and knowledge of Great Whites arises
as much from what we can’t see as from what we can.
A report that appeared in Fisheries, a scientific journal,
last year listed several species of sharks, including
Great Whites, as being in danger of extinction.
Yet, no one really knows how many Great Whites exist,
where they breed, or where they give birth. Nor is it
known what kind of life expectancy they have.
When Pangaea was autopsied, she was estimated to be
about 14 years old. Even at that size and age, she was
found to be lacking in signs of sexual maturity- a prepubescent
shark. It is estimated that females don’t reach
maturity until around the age of 20. Could we be looking
at a species that lives as long as humans, or even longer?“
We could be,” Davis says. “Yes, definitely,” Van Sommeran
Large predator species typically have longer gestation
periods and produce fewer young. For a species that
is at the top of the food chain, these procreation strategies
have historically worked. Yet, with increasing human
encroachment on the oceans, global fondness for shark
delicacies (such as the fins and jaws), gill netting,
and the age-old fear of sharks that has led to the sanctioning
of their destruction, these same reproductive characteristics
may contribute to their undoing, as they become unable
to replace members of their species who die.
PSRF has thus far tagged a total of 71 Whites since
1995, and have planted 10 acoustic transmitters. Davis
has collaboratively planted seven satellite tags with
the Farallons researchers. The data received from the
acoustic transmitters was recently published. Meanwhile
Davis is currently analyzing the data from the satellite
devices, which will help to answer some questions about
the sharks’ habits and range.
After a lecture on Great White Sharks at UC Santa Cruz,
a female student raised her hand.
it true that shark attacks are on the rise around the
world?” She asked lecturer Van Sommeran.
there are more shark attacks. But there are also more
people breaking their legs, falling off of cliffs and
getting in car accidents. There are just more people,”
Later, he explains that there have been less than 100
reported shark attacks since the 1920’s, with less than
a dozen resulting fatalities. “Great Whites are actually
in third place as a shark that attacks humans,” Van
Sommeran emphasizes. Yet, this past year alone, humans
accidentally killed at least four great whites in central
California waters. Those deaths, of course, are just
the ones that have been documented.
sharks have been glamorized in popular media, and have
an image as man eaters. But in this day and age, we
should be mature enough to recognize their role as normal
animals in the intricate web of the world’s oceans,”
With the possibility of the extinction of white sharks
in the near future and the relative rarity of attacks
on humans, it is unclear which species should be more
afraid of the other.
Originally published here: