May 28, 2020
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I swim with sharks. That’s how I know we’re the dangerous ones.

Jim Abernethy | Scuba-Adventures.com
Jim Abernethy | Scuba-Adventures.com
Carolyn Wheeler, a graduate student at the University of New England, scuba dived with tiger sharks as part of several research trips.

In the northern Bahamas, there is a shallow sand flat that appears desolate. No land is visible in any direction. The most you see on the surface are a few boats bobbing in the waves.

But under the water, it’s one of the most special places in the world.

This area, nicknamed Tiger Beach, is home to one of the world’s largest concentrations of tiger sharks. Each year, avid shark divers and some of the world’s foremost photographers and filmmakers visit this incredible place to experience and document the awe-inspiring creatures.

My first trip to Tiger Beach was in 2013. I had just started my junior year at the University of New England when I was offered the chance to join a Tiger Beach expedition with researchers from the University of Miami. Divers and researchers had noticed that Tiger Beach is dominated by large female tiger sharks. It begged the question: Were pregnant females drawn there for some reason?

That’s where I came in. My role was to collect data on the sharks’ reproductive biology through blood samples and a water-resistant, veterinary-grade ultrasound. Once we caught a shark, we brought it on board the boat, held it down and ran the ultrasound machine along the shark’s belly — not unlike a sonogram for a pregnant human.

My first trip was wildly successful, yielding dozens of ultrasound videos capturing tiger shark pups wriggling in their 14-foot mother’s belly.

This led to two more expeditions to complete the study and publish never-before documented outcomes. Our research showed that the pregnant sharks were indeed drawn to Tiger Beach, a safe place to gestate their pups away from the harassment of male sharks.

In the fall of 2015, we headed back to Tiger Beach. Only this time it wasn’t just to collect data but to film a science-based episode for Discovery Channel’s wildly popular Shark Week. Joining me was my adviser and mentor of five years, Dr. James Sulikowski.

So often, sharks are sensationalized into man-eating, blood-thirsty killers. But everyone on this trip knew a different story and wanted to show it to the public.

In reality, sharks are threatened magnitudes more by humans than we are by them. More than 100 million are killed each year. Their populations are in trouble, so we must dispel the myths about an animal that has been on this earth far longer than us.

Surprisingly, I learned just as much about the tiger sharks from scuba diving with them as I did from the blood samples I took. It is astonishing to watch them glide around effortlessly, making any average swimmer feel inadequate.

Although I still have not convinced many, being close to a shark 40 feet underwater is not a terrifying experience. The theme song from “Jaws” is not playing in the background. All you hear is the sound of your own breathing.

It is possible to dive with sharks safely, partially because of their combination of keen senses. Sharks can identify from smell and sight that a diver is not a fish; therefore, they’re unlikely to be interested enough to even come close. When sharks do bite humans, it’s accidental. Of course, sharks are a predator and demand our respect when diving and researching. However, peaceful interactions help us show that sharks pose little threat to humans.

The main goal of the Shark Week episode transformed, from not only showing the great science being performed, but also to portray the need for shark conservation. Watching the beautifully documented hourlong episode, which served as the opening piece of the Shark Week airing back in June, was surreal.

I had countless conversations with leading expert scientists, photographers and conservationists who are all working towards the same goals: shark conservation and awareness.

Because of our research, the scientific community has new information about shark reproduction and the habitat known as Tiger Beach. We discovered that Tiger Beach is not only important for pregnant females but also juvenile and nonpregnant sharks. This information is crucial in maintaining the ban on shark fishing in Bahamian waters, allowing this incredible species to be protected at various stages in its life.

Carolyn Wheeler earned her bachelor’s degree in marine science from the University of New England, where she worked as a research assistant with UNE’s Sulikowski Shark and Fish Research Lab. She is a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

 


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