Tagging a Great White Shark!

One of the most rewarding things for us at International Marine Volunteers is when volunteers come back to join us, time and again.  Brian Whyte, from Ontario, is one such returning volunteer, he first joined us last year for 2 weeks and booked again this year for three weeks with us, extending by another week once he got here!

Working in the culinary trade back home in his normal daily life, Brian is actually qualified with an Hons in Biology.  When he joins us here in South Africa he helps wherever and whenever he can with boat operations, data collection and ecotourism activities.  He is a senior volunteer, happily taking on added responsibility, and assists by giving boat briefings and taking care of some communication and security. He is one of the most helpful, capable and affable volunteers we have ever had!

Brian was lucky enough to be invited to join one of our tagging trips recently and he had the following to say about it:

The other day at International Marine Volunteers I was fortunate enough to be one of four volunteers to go on our research vessel, Lwazi, on a shark tagging trip. Lwazi is a small vessel, roughly 8 meters long, with low gunnels. While this makes tagging easier, it also means that the boat is very weather dependent. Large swells and strong winds don’t make skipping Lwazi easy, which meant it was beautiful day on the water when we launched!

Brian and one of co-volunteers chumming to attract a great white shark for tagging                            [Photo credit: Harry Stone]

The other volunteers and I were joined by skipper Dickie Chivell and marine biologist and Ph.D candidate Alison Towner, who is researching the relationship of cage diving and great white shark behaviour in the area. After heading out of the harbour for about 15 minutes, we anchored and began chumming the water to attract a shark to tag. Tagging proved to be a somewhat tricky process as there are a few things to take into account when placing the tag.

The shark needs to be very close to the boat when tagging to ensure proper placement. While a correctly placed tag won’t do any harm to the shark, if the tag were to be misapplied the shark could be injured. Also, the tags are an expensive piece of equipment and if not deployed properly it could mean they would fall off the shark and are lost. Taking this into account, skipper Dickie held the tagging pole over the side of the boat waiting for a shark to get close, while us volunteers shark-spotted and continued chumming.

Dickie Chivell successfully placing a tag into the shark      [Photo credit: Harry Stone]

After some anxious close passes, patience paid off when a 3.8 meter male with a sickle-shaped dorsal fin appeared. He approached the back of the boat and swam to the port side, right underneath the tagging pole. One quick motion and a split second later – the shark was tagged perfectly and was ready to be tracked!

I have volunteered for nearly two months with Marine Dynamics and the tagging and tracking trip was far and away one of my favourite days! It was an amazing time being on the research boat, collecting scientific data that will be used to help uncover some of the mysteries of the great white shark. Being able to contribute to this important conservation project was an experience that I won’t soon forget.

We are really looking forward to having Brian join the IMV team again – there are just a handful of volunteers of his calibre, so it’s no wonder the research team named the tagged shark after him!  Here’s wishing both Brians happy, safe travels, wherever they may go 🙂

Watch this space for part 2 of the tagging excursion…

Meredith Thornton (IMV Manager)

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