In the summer of 2018, I was approached by Dr Andrea Gaion and offered a once in a lifetime opportunity to join him as part of the UK Blue Shark Project. I said yes without hesitation. We would be heading to Penzance harbour and travelling 12 nautical miles out to sea to find the fascinating blue shark (Prionace glauca).
Blue sharks are one of the many shark species that visit our coastlines and are known well for their cobalt blue scales and puppy-dog faces. They are relatively small and streamline animals and come to the South West coast every summer to feed in the nutrient-rich waters. Needless to say, I was very excited to see some in the wild.
In August we set off and boarded the rib that would take us out to find the sharks. After about an hour we arrived at our location and dropped the anchor. It was not just Andrea and me on the boat, we were joined by some incredibly passionate and enthusiastic people. Some were marine biology students and others worked for marine-based organisations. There was even an accountant on board who simply loves marine life and wanted to gain some experience in the field. The excitement in the air was thick as the chum was poured into the water and we began to wait for the sharks to join us. Chum is often used to attract sharks to vessels due to its rancid smell that sharks can smell from miles away.
The reality of wildlife research is that it is very much a waiting game. It took a fair few hours for the sharks to come but once they did, we had three or four circling the boat and checking out the area for potential prey. Now that we had the sharks, it was Andrea's job to try and collect tissue samples from them. The tissue is taken from the behind the dorsal fin, a fleshy part of the shark, using a metal pole with a sharp tip. Something important to note here is that the process of collecting data in this way is not harmful to the sharks. The majority of sharks that visit the coastal waters of the UK are female and succumb to much worse from their male counterparts during the mating process. Additionally, the natural salt in the ocean water allows injuries like these to heal quickly without infection. The collection of tissue allows for DNA analysis and to check toxicity levels in the shark’s flesh.
After a couple of days on the water, a few visits from common dolphins and countless blue shark sightings, we had no samples. This method of data collection is challenging. Andrea chose to collect the data by luring the sharks close to the boat and collecting tissue samples while they are still in the water. This poses a number of challenges. Firstly you have to get the shark to come to the boat, then you have to get the shark to move into the right position so that you can take the sample, then you need to use the pole and tip with enough force to retrieve a small pea-sized tissue sample from a very fast and agile marine animal. The only other way to collect the tissue sample would be to fish the sharks out of the water one-by-one, drag them onto the rib and take the sample when they are on board. This was not an option for the UK Blue Shark Project. In reality, this method of data collection is quite harmful to sharks as survival rates once they are released is very low, and the process of getting them onto the boat is incredibly stressful.
After numerous attempts, we had to end our trip with no tissue samples, but it was not a wasted journey. This is often the nature of the beast. Wild animal research will often result in no samples or even no sightings. Volunteering with Andrea and the UK Blue Shark Project allowed me to see how shark conservation and research work in the field, and I was fortunate enough to see these magnificent creatures in the wild. I also met some cool people who all care deeply about sharks and the ocean.
If you would like to find out more about the UK Blue Shark Project, you can join us on the 9th December 2019 when Dr Andrea Gaion will be giving an informational talk about the project and a detailed account of his work.
Follow this link to book your seat today: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/an-evening-with-the-blue-shark-project-tickets-72791139257?utm_term=eventname_text&fbclid=IwAR00Ip1C_p4h5C6v_UPuNOzil0erYWkyxGVAHvgC9qj79G3TlZSWuXChVzA