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Jaws dropping: It's sun, sea and sharks

A recent study found that great white sharks are in decline. Metro heads to Belize to see how volunteers can help save these beasts.

July 20, 2011

Graeme Green - 14 July 2011
Metro (United Kingdom)

"I’m not leaving here until I catch a shark, even if I have to stay all night," says frustrated marine biologist Demian Chapman.

One of two dark shapes gliding through the water around the dock has taken a few nibbles of the bait over the past hour but managed to avoid getting hooked.

When one does eventually take a proper bite and tugs on the line, Chapman jolts forward.

I have to grab him around the waist to stop him being pulled into the water and end up slipping on the dock, which is greasy with blood and fish guts.

He pulls the shark in beside the dock to take a closer look. The 2m lemon shark is the first of 29 sharks our Earthwatch team captures during a week on Glover’s Reef marine reserve and research station off the southern coast of Belize. Each one is measured, tagged, sampled and safely released – with the data collected fed into a long-term study that could help save shark populations around the world.

Shark numbers are declining rapidly. The main cause is shark’s fin soup, a delicacy in Asia that makes the fish a highly profitable commodity. "It’s a big problem all over the world," says Chapman. "It really is critical."

The Glover’s Reef research aims primarily to prove conclusively that protected reserves help increase shark numbers and sizes, compared with fished and overfished areas (this might seem obvious but policy-makers around the world demand concrete evidence before acting).

They’re also at the cutting edge of researching what effect exterminating sharks has on the rest of an ecosystem. One theory, with growing supporting evidence, suggests fewer sharks equals more batoids, such as rays, which in turn could decimate conch and other invertebrates.

"The main thing we’ve learned about taking out big predators is you can almost never predict the effect but there always is one and it’s always negative," says Chapman.

We spend our days out on the Caribbean Sea, baiting hooks and setting lines. Before checking the catch, there’s plenty of time for snorkelling. Among the plenteous fish, we spot a huge goliath grouper and a beautiful nurse shark resting in the shade of some coral. I dive down and hover above it, checking out its sleek shape, sandy colour and round head.

The lines bring in a number of sharks, mostly small reefs. But night is when the real fun is had. With moonlight shimmering on the black water and flashes of lightning across the horizon we check the hooks, finding one shark after another.

"This is a record night," says Chapman, as the haul reaches 12 sharks – nine reef, two sharpnose and one giant nurse. We save the biggest for last. "You and me will work up the nurse shark. It will blow your mind," Chapman tells me. "It’s likely to be a bit irritable. It might thrash a bit." It does.

"That’s a test of your rope skills right there," he says, as I lasso the tail and tighten it securely. "Keep your eyes on the head at all times," he warns me as I draw the tape measure along the body. From the nose to the tip of the tail, it measures 2.13metres.

I take the pectoral fin and turn the shark over. There are no ‘claspers’, so it’s a female. I clip off a small triangle of fin with a pair of scissors for samples. Chapman collects DNA with a scalpel. "Beautiful," he says, as I inject the tag cleanly next to the fin.

We snip the hook from the shark’s mouth and release the lasso. Chapman swaps places – I put my hands on the shark’s body, just behind the pectoral fins, and give a good push; the tail thrashes and she disappears quickly into the dark ocean.

The work’s fascinating, too enjoyable to really be called ‘work.’ But there’s plenty of downtime too, for snorkelling, or siesta-ing in hammocks. The station’s facilities are basic but comfortable and clean. It’s the surroundings that make it – palm trees and white sand beaches, blue skies and clear blue seas.

Undeniably fun, there’s a sense that the research here has genuine value, not reportedly the case with all volunteer projects. Many of the people in my team were marine biologists, scuba divers and ocean lovers already, but getting to see and work with the sharks up close – getting to release a two-metre nurse shark back into the ocean with your bare hands – certainly makes you even more passionate about the fact these fascinating creatures, the ocean’s top predator, need to be protected.

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