Here at the Texas State Aquarium, we’ve got some pretty brave souls. We have those who dive with the sand tiger sharks in our Islands of Steel exhibit; those who help give our 400-lb alligator Bo a physical, and even those work every day with our raptors, or birds of prey. But one of the bravest is Suraida Nanez-James, our manager of distance learning and outreach, who not only studied and helped to identify great whites; she cage dived with them, too.
Back in the summer of 2003, Nanez-James was working on earning her undergraduate degree in Marine Fisheries at TAMUG and scored the opportunity to work for six weeks as a research intern for the now-defunct White Shark Trust Organization in Gansbaai, South Africa, A.K.A. the great white capital of the world.
Nanez-James and the rest of the crew were most interested in tracking demographic information of great whites in the area, i.e., recording data based on sex, length, and distinguishing marks.
After going about ten miles out in a rather pint-sized boat (cue Jaws quotes), their nine hour day began.
“We had to chum the water, and then drop bait, trying to get them close to the boat and to breach the water,” Nanez-James explains.
She said the task was made more difficult because the team didn’t want the sharks actually biting the buoys attached to the bait, or eating all of the bait. The object was not to feed the legendary creatures, but to lure them up to get photos for data purposes.
Nanez-James says it’s an experience she will never forget.
“I wasn’t scared of them, but let me tell you; it definitely gives you a healthy respect for them as predators. It was amazing to be able to get that close to them and just be aware of their grace and agility,” she says with awe. “Not only are they incredibly fast and agile for their size, they are super smart, too. They would learn where we were going to drop the bait and anticipate it before we even did it.”
A dearth of important information was recovered from the project, helping to support great white conservation efforts and also data in general.
“There’s just so much we don’t know about them – their migration patterns, where they breed, when and why they travel and why they travel so far,” Nanez-James says of the species.
Thanks to the efforts of scientists like Nanez-James and organizations like OCEARCH, Discovery’s Shark Week, and the shark tagging work done by Greg Stunz of the Harte Research Institute, we now know so much more and are learning every day about the wide world of sharks. Such research allows us to properly educate others about the oceans’ apex predators and also to learn how we can help conserve them for future generations and healthier oceans to come.