Months ago, the local community was abuzz that a 16ft great white shark known as Mary Lee was pinged off the coast of Jacksonville for more than two weeks.
“Why is she here?”, “what brought her here?” and “are there more out there?” were all questions being asked by area residents. But these were also the same questions being asked by the team who originally tagged Mary Lee, a scientific research organization by the name of OCEARCH (O-search).
OCEARCH, who recently partnered with Catepillar Inc. and is funding the research team for the next three years, picked Jacksonville because of Mary Lee’s fascination with the area and the easy access to docking downtown in the St. Johns River. Based off past experiences, OCEARCH wanted to keep the community fully informed of what they were doing, how they were doing it and what they hope to achieve with the tagging of great white sharks.
During the 20 day expedition, the Jacksonville community in exchange embraced OCEARCH. They partnered with local colleges, spoke with the Mayor, educated elementary students, surfed with locals at the Mayport Poles and released almost daily YouTube videos documenting their findings. But it’s the southern hospitality that really impressed OCEARCH. “We’ve been all over the world and never felt more at home in a city” expedition leader Chris Fischer said. “We wanted to get one for Jacksonville”.
That’s exactly what they did. The OCEARCH team was able to capture and successfully tag a 14ft great white shark just off the coast of Jacksonville. And it’s what they do with that data after the shark is released is what benefits us all the most.
Give it away.
That might be the single thing that comes out of Chris Fischer’s mouth the most. “We’ve got a world-class vessel setting new standards for how science is done—and we’re giving it all away for free.”
The vessel of which Fischer speaks so intensely is the M/V OCEARCH, a repurposed Alaskan crab boat now outfitted for examining large marine life such as the great white shark. At first blush, the 126’ boat looks like a blue-collar commercial fisher but the reality is that she is one of the most advanced marine science and exploration platforms in the world.
Despite her unique qualities, the boat is only the toolkit. What she’s accomplishing is because of the legendary effort and coordination of her crew and expedition staff of nearly 40 members. The organization exists to support difficult marine research and ultimately to protect the resource of the ocean. “We do it for the ocean. The ocean has given us everything, and now it’s our responsibility to fight for her” says Fischer.
And fight for her they do. Unfortunately, political shuffling and competitiveness driven by funding scarcity plague the processes of science. Fischer advocates an open and inclusive approach and requires that all data collected onboard be made available to any scientist who requests it. Sitting at dinner next to Fischer I observed Captain Brett McBride pose a question about underwater compasses. Dr. Nick Whitney leaned over to respond and the two engaged in a long conversation about how sharks navigate precisely to remote locations. Fischer nudged me and said quietly, “Look, there you have it. This is what it’s all about. You have a world-class fishing captain and a world-class marine scientist sharing ideas with one another. Those two guys come from totally different places, but we’re putting them together and we’re gonna keep putting them together.”
A common criticism of OCEARCH is that Fischer and his team operate seeking fame or money, rather than from love of their environment. Understanding keystone species such as the white sharks can in turn affect policy and cultural attitudes and drive substantive change worldwide. Even the air we breathe is connected to the ocean.
The science team buzzes about the significance of OCEARCH as an organization, as well as its uniqueness among scientific nonprofits. Mote Laboratory’s Nick Whitney notes that unlike many other groups, OCEARCH is centrist and strictly data-driven. The tracking and physiological sampling being conducted by the expedition teams yields highly granular data that lends unprecedented resolution to our understanding of white sharks (and by extension, the ocean).
Fischer is convicted that good policy is precipitated by good fieldwork. He identifies the problems that arise by having policy and science disconnected, and believes that his role as an explorer is to paint an objective picture with sound data analysis and then work to enact the legislation that sensibly arises. For example, a major part of OCEARCH’s current mission is discovering the white sharks’ nursery. Upon the discovery of that area, Fisher will move to swiftly enact the policies necessary to protect it. He also makes note of the problems that come about by the draft of emotionally sound but data-impoverished policy that can actually stand in the way of conservation, “If you tell us that we can’t tag or capture white sharks because it makes someone upset to see that, in the end you’re just hurting the fish in a bigger way because you’re preventing us from protecting them.”
The excitement faces challenges though. A stream of misinformation and poor communication stirred up some controversy while the OCEARCH team was operating in Jacksonville. OCEARCH decides where to fish based on the data they have available therefore tracking Mary Lee and examination of local sightings reports for white sharks led them closer inshore and positioned at the mouth of the St. Johns River. Unfortunately, this is also directly adjacent to one of the most popular surf spots in North Florida, the Mayport Poles.
Despite the fact that the only days the mothership operated in this area were flat days, reports continued that OCEARCH was chumming the lineup. One rest day the crew went out to take advantage of some good surf at the Poles and walked down the boardwalk listening to the base watchtower announcing that there was chum in the water. “It started to feel like what was happening in South Africa,” first mate Todd Goggins said about a previous expedition. “Total misinformation. We’re like, ‘Hey! Hard to chum when we’re hanging on the beach surfing!”
Local surfer and owner of Jax Surf Training, Tiffany Layton noted online that Florida’s climate allows for bathing year round and expressed concern that chumming activity could unnecessarily excite extant predators. While the effect of chumming in a given area are unlikely to last more than a day (depending on current conditions), Layton’s comments shed light on a larger issue, a lack of communication within the surfing community. A look of consternation flashes across Fischer’s face when he reads comments on OCEARCH’s Facebook page. “This is a valuable lesson guys,” as he addresses a few crewmembers, “We have to engage the surf community before we just start fishing off their breaks.”
While the OCEARCH posted online and called the navy base to inform them of the catch of a large white shark near the poles after the fact, Fischer acknowledges that they missed a big opportunity to connect on this expedition. He explains that he wants to be in a partnership role with watermen, not an adversarial one. “Next time,” he says, “We’re going to meet up with the surfers beforehand, explain what we’re doing, and explain why it’s important in a way they can relate to. We all love the ocean, and we should be fighting for it together.”
This response is characteristic Fischer—he addresses a problem by acknowledging his part in it and resolving to improve; he sees no place in the conversation for emotional defensiveness. He seems to understand the burden of leadership and the precarious position he has been placed in because of the high-profile nature of his work. Fischer deftly guides his crew’s perspective to mirror his reason and humility.
For the OCEARCH team, it always comes back to the ocean. Each member of the crew is united by a singular vision to support ocean research in order to conserve the resource. Success and failure are always measured against that vision. The talk onboard is never about which shark was the biggest, or which expedition caught the most, and when they field questions about such the crew almost seems unsure of how to answer. They want to talk about conservation, education and research methodology, not trophy pursuit.
“We have a real opportunity here,” Fischer says at the closing ceremony of the expedition, “Not just to make history, not just to do something that has never been done before. We have an opportunity to save what we love. We’ve got the smartest people in the world researching learning and analyzing. They’re producing unprecedented data and incredible educational material that will create generational change and we’re giving it all away for free.”
This article was written by Spencer Pitman