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The Salem News
August 28, 2009

Teacher goes to summer school - of sharks

By Amanda McGregor , Staff writer, Salem News

DANVERS - Christopher Borgatti bobbed alongside a leopard shark in the Pacific Ocean - just one of many thrilling moments for the science teacher on a recent research expedition.

Borgatti, who teaches at St. John's Prep, received a fellowship to assist scientists off the Monterey, Calif., coast last month.

For nearly two weeks, he donned a wet suit, swam in cold waters and mucked through sometimes waist-deep mud while studying the sharks and rays of the Elkhorn Slough marine estuary.

"I love this part of science," said Borgatti, 29. "I'm not afraid of getting down and dirty."

Borgatti said sharks in the Elkhorn fell victim to overfishing and pollution in the 20th century. In response, scientists founded the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation in 1990 to track the different species of sharks and rays that live there.

"The scientists realized that sharks have an important ecological niche in these ecosystems," Borgatti said, "and the waters themselves have cleaned up quite a bit."

Borgatti received the fellowship through the Earthwatch Institute, an international organization.

"The idea (of Earthwatch) is to engage people in scientific research," Borgatti said, "so they learn more about the environment and different research projects that are going on in different places."

Earthwatch gave Borgatti six expeditions from which to choose, including research of manatees in Belize, group dynamics of monkeys in Africa and whales in Canada.

"I've always been interested in sharks," said Borgatti, who was familiar with the Pelagic Foundation's work through reports he read in science journals and saw on the Discovery Channel, "so it really stood out."

During Borgatti's expedition in Monterey, he and the other scientists trolled out in small, inflatable boats and cast gill nets, waiting for the buoys to signal that a shark or a ray swam in. Then, the crew would place the creature in a holding pen to record the sex, length, width and species; take a skin sample to do genetics work at the lab; and then tag it.

"After a few hours of pulling yourself out of mud holes and wrestling these sharks and rays, it certainly can become a little tiring at times," he said. "The banks are extremely muddy, so you would sink sometimes up to your hips in mud, so moving around was definitely challenging."

Borgatti kept a blog during his trip with vivid photos and descriptions that his students and family followed.

He said he's already working on ways to incorporate his experiences into the curriculum at St. John's Prep, where he teaches freshman biology and a junior/senior environmental science elective. St. John's Preparatory School is a private, all-boys Catholic high school in Danvers with about 1,260 students.

"Experiences like this keep you fresh, and the kids definitely feed off that," said Borgatti, who lives in Byfield. "The school has been extremely supportive of allowing me to have these opportunites."

Q&A with teacher Chris Borgatti

Are sharks and rays hard to handle?

* Some fish were very easy to handle. One species was a real pleasure: bone-back rays. They have small little barbs that run along the perimeter of their body. You can grab them by the base of the tail, and the thorns stick into your wet suit like Velcro and you could easily carry them. They are very docile.

Was it risky?

* The bat ray has a spine that can stick you, but the staff was very good at showing us different techniques of handling species.

Most interesting creature you studied?

* A shovel-nose guitar fish; it's a really neat-looking fish. The snout is transparent, and scientists aren't really sure yet what the value is of that adaptation.


* A leopard shark, which was probably 4 to 41/2 feet long and just a beautiful, beautiful fish, with a sort of leopard print on its body.

Was it hard to join the mission?

* The research staff was just outstanding. They got us right up to speed and integrated. ... By a couple days into the trip, it's like we'd been working together a long time.

Were you sad to leave?

* Oh yeah. You get into a rhythm and you're following the tides ... and you feel you're learning a lot every day. At the same time, I'm pretty jazzed up about coming back to school in the fall and sharing this with the students.

Why ocean science?

* The ocean has always been a big part of my family's life. I've been surfing year-round all my life.

Other notable travels?

* After my first year at St. John's, I went to the Arctic Circle to study climate change. I was similarly connected with a bunch of climatologists and earth scientists. I saw polar bears and beluga whales.

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