For Sean Van Sommeran, the term "swimming with sharks" is more than
As a kid, the "Undersea Kingdom" addict would stuff his pockets full of
squid, scan the waters near Capitola Wharf, then dive in above a pool of
leopard sharks, hoping to make contact. In a way, Van Sommeran's job today is
merely a continuation of that quest.
"I've always had this very basic, very puerile fascination with sharks,"
Except now, a little older and wiser at age 41, that quest is fueled by a
passion to protect a misunderstood fish whose populations are rapidly
declining. A decade ago, this passion spurred the short, burly fisherman with
a baby face to form the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation, a Santa Cruz
nonprofit that promotes research and conservation.
"It became abundantly clear to me that the best way to defend these
animals was to collect data on them and to help people understand the history
of the animal," Van Sommeran said. "I dropped everything and began to work on
After years of toil on a shoestring budget the persistent -- and
stubborn -- Van Sommeran, who never finished college and bills himself as a
sort of blue-collar scientist, has turned his foundation into one of the
nation's most visible shark advocacy groups, featured in publications such as
Time, Discover and National Geographic. Van Sommeran and his staff -- a
handful of volunteers with day jobs in the marine sciences who moonlight as
Pelagic field researchers -- are also the people to whom many academics turn
for field research in today's leading shark studies.
The team includes everyone from a professional diver and marine biologist
to a surfing instructor and fisherman. In addition, Pelagic is aided by about
two dozen undergraduate and graduate students each year through a springtime
course it offers on scientific sampling.
Much of Pelagic's research and advocacy has been funded out of his own
pocket, and Van Sommeran works long hours most of the year -- chartering
boats and as a naturalist field guide -- to save up money to work full time
at Pelagic when sharks migrate in the fall. Pelagic survives on a budget that
tops $20,000 in a good year, but is often as low as $12,000.
Van Sommeran and Operations Director Callaghan Fritz-Cope often pay for
field expenses. The pair tries to bring in extra cash by filming documentary
footage for venues like the Discovery Channel and National Geographic, and
giving talks in classrooms and museums. In addition, Van Sommeran sometimes
earns money doing undercover investigations into activities like turtle
poaching and shark "finning," whereby the sharks' fins are cut off and their
carcasses thrown back into the ocean.
Monitoring the sharks
Cruising the Monterey Bay in their sportfishing and scuba-diving vessels,
Van Sommeran's scientists tag sharks to help keep track of populations,
collect tissue samples for DNA studies, and, at Aņo Nuevo island, place
satellite transmitters on great whites to study migration patterns.
The transmitters have recorded groundbreaking data that show sharks
migrate as far as Hawaii during the spring. At the Elkhorn Slough near Moss
Landing, Pelagic monitors leopard, thornback ray and other sharks, unraveling
the mystery behind their breeding and foraging behaviors.
Just last month, Van Sommeran and Fritz-Cope made a grueling, 250-mile
trip in their 26-foot boat to the Isla Guadalupe near Baja, Mexico, to study
the seal rookery where sharks tagged at Aņo Nuevo have been found migrating.
Pelagic plans to set up a field research base at the island within the coming
Van Sommeran has been a leader in efforts to enact regulations protecting
the wide variety of sharks that populate the California coast. But with
species such as the basking shark yet to receive protection and with fishing
for shark-fin cartilage -- an Asian delicacy -- on the rise, Van Sommeran
says he still has a lot of work before him.
"Sometimes, I can't sleep at night. My heart just goes thump-uh-thump-uh-
thump thinking of all that's at stake," he said.
The world's largest predatory fish, reaching up to 21 feet in length and
4,800 pounds, the great white shark is one of the least understood creatures -
- largely because it's so hard to study. Contrary to their portrayal as
vicious man-eaters, most sharks are indifferent to humans, preferring the
dense energy source that blubber-rich seals and sea lions provide -- half a
seal can sustain a shark for more than a month.
Region's 'Red Triangle'
In addition to the coasts of South Africa, Japan, southern Australia and
the northeastern United States, the great white is found in large numbers in
the "Red Triangle" -- a 100-mile strip of California coast stretching south
from Bodega Bay to Monterey, where the shark's prey, the elephant seal, is in
abundance. Some estimates put the number of great whites here at 100 to 300.
Since the 1930s, when they were exploited for their liver oil, sharks
have been victims of heavy overfishing. Bowls of shark-fin soup sell for as
much as $100, and a single fin can fetch as much as $20,000. The lucrative
trade accounts for an estimated 100 million shark deaths a year and encourages
finning, according to www.nature.com. The practice has been prohibited in the
United States since 2000.
Millions of sharks also die each year from getting tangled in fishing
nets set for tuna or billfish. Recreational sport has taken its toll as well.
As late as the mid-1990s, for example, sport fishermen slaughtered as many
sharks as they could fit into a day during an annual shark derby at the
Elkhorn Slough. In the 1920s, Monterey Yacht Club guests could harpoon a shark
for just 50 cents.
Recent studies have discovered shark populations are declining at
shocking rates. North Atlantic shark populations have been cut in half over
the past 15 years, with some species so low they may soon be wiped out,
according to researchers at Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia. Hammerhead,
thresher, white and blue sharks in particular are going fast, the researchers
found. The World Conservation Union considers white sharks to be threatened
Except for regulations protecting the great white and bag limits for
sport fisherman, there are few regulations -- especially when it comes to
commercial fishing -- for sharks on the West Coast, Van Sommeran said.
Conversely, an East Coast management plan developed by the National Marine
Fisheries Service has protected 39 species of sharks since 1993. Regulations
worldwide are likewise patchy.
Little data available
The disparity is largely due to a dearth of baseline shark data. The
Dalhousie University study, published in January, represented the first
definitive numbers on shark populations -- and even those are questioned by
some people in the fishing industry, who say the information is incomplete and
full of errors.
Researchers got their data from analyzing logbooks recorded from 1986
through 2000 by fishermen and biologists on board longline fishing vessels.
Fishing industry people said sharks roam long distances and are often outside
the regions where vessels record their numbers. They also said the logbooks
analyzed are often inconsistent and unreliable.
Pelagic is among a handful of California researchers and biologists
compiling shark data that could prove integral to enacting strong protective
measures. Others include scientists at UC Davis; California State University,
Long Beach; Hopkins Marine Station at the Monterey Bay Aquarium; and the Point
Reyes Bird Observatory at the Farallon Islands.
Pelagic was one of the first to start ID tagging the 21 species of shark
that populate Monterey Bay, and has tagged more than 1,500 sharks since its
inception, according to Van Sommeran.
The tagging is instrumental in helping determine population counts and
learning about sharks' life history. Sharks tagged by Pelagic have been
recovered from Dana Point and the Channel Islands to Mexico. One blue shark
was discovered off the coast of Japan.
In addition, tissue samples taken while tagging have helped a researcher
at Southeastern University in Florida develop a DNA test that identifies where
shark fins on the global market are coming from. The test could be used to
help crack down on illegal finners.
Pelagic tags the sharks with a unique process that combines lures with
bait and avoids cages. At Aņo Nuevo, a seal-shaped piece of plywood is
attached to a fishing rod and cast out near the rocky hauls or landings used
by the roughly 8,000 elephant seals that populate the island from December to
Then a 15-pound slab of blubber is soaked in the water to add a scent to
accompany the lure. Within as little as a minute to as long as several hours a
great white shark will approach the lure, usually nudging it and occasionally
Crew members reel the lure in to get the shark within reach of a lance,
on whose tip sits a tag or biopsy instrument, and pierce the shark at the skin
behind its dorsal fin. The crew guides the animal by the nose to strategically
position it, hands inching dangerously close to the creature's mammoth jaws.
In the open sea, smaller sharks are lured with salmon or tuna, and then
scooped up with a long-handled sport fishing net.
The foundation's tracking of sharks sometimes resembles a real-life
version of the game "Submarine." In 1997, Pelagic attached acoustic
transmitters to great whites at Aņo Nuevo that allowed researchers to keep
simultaneous track of five sharks for 10 hours a day -- no small feat. The
transmitters, which emit radio signals, worked in conjunction with "sonobuoys"
-- buoys equipped with underwater microphones -- that detected the
transmitters' "ping-ping" whenever sharks came within range. Pelagic also
helped run the island-based computer station that recorded the transmitters'
How sharks hunt
The tracking shattered myths about shark behavior such as the belief that
great whites hunt only in the daytime. It also showed white sharks are
tactical hunters -- often ambushing seals -- as well as social animals who
like to hang out in shark cliques.
"(The study) never would have been done without them," Peter Klimley, the
UC Davis ichthyologist who led the study, said about Pelagic.
Pelagic's satellite tagging has produced even more startling results. In
2000, the foundation, along with biologists at the Point Reyes Bird
Observatory, attached so-called "smart tags" to great whites that recorded
groundbreaking data about shark migration. The tags recorded snapshots of the
sharks' water depth, position, speed and more every two hours. The tags pop
off at programmed times and float to the surface, where satellites upload the
recorded data, which is in turn downloaded to land-based computers.
The research revealed that great whites, after leaving the California
coast in the winter, travel much vaster distances at far greater depths than
previously thought. Contrary to popular theory, which held that sharks spent
most of their time close to shore hunting seals and sea lions, smart tags
showed sharks traveling as far as Hawaii and to subtropical regions in the
eastern Pacific. The sharks often swam 1,000 feet or more below the water
surface and sometimes dove deeper than 2,000 feet, spending several months in
the open sea.
The new information, combined with future tracking, could be used to help
enact regulations protecting pupping grounds, as it suggests females may be
traveling to the eastern Pacific to give birth. Pelagic placed transmitters on
four more sharks last season and plans to target pregnant females this year.
Pelagic's success in the field has not come without controversy. Behind
the magazine spreads has boiled an academic feud that turns Van Sommeran's
cheeks red with anger whenever he speaks of it.
On one side stands Van Sommeran, a working-class stiff fighting for
legitimacy in academia, which refuses to take him seriously, he says. He
points as proof to the 2002 Nature article chronicling the results of the
smart tag study. The academic paper, written by researchers at Stanford
University and UC Santa Cruz, failed to even mention Pelagic's role in the
field, despite giving a co-authorship to Farallon biologists who played a
similar role. The issue is in litigation.
Klimley says Van Sommeran rightly bears a grudge.
"I think he did more work for (the Nature) paper than some who were an
author on it," said Klimley, who did not participate in the study. "I would
have included him (as coauthor) if I were senior author."
Grabbing for attention?
But Klimley also said that tagging a shark does not make Van Sommeran a
scientist, and faulted him for sometimes hogging the media and diverting
attention from the people who "really do the work."
"To be honest, Sean is not a researcher... he doesn't have the scientific
skills and hence has not published on his own," Klimley said. "Putting a tag
on a shark is a relatively easy thing to do."
Burney Le Boeuf, a UC Santa Cruz seal expert who participated in the
Nature study, refused to even comment on Van Sommeran's legitimacy as a
researcher, because Le Boeuf said he had nothing good to say about the matter.
With Van Sommeran not short on braggadocio -- he claims, for example,
he knows more about California sharks than anyone -- it's hard to know whose
side to take. Van Sommeran boasts "these Ph.D.s are sick of me proving them
wrong" and seems proud that "I've made enemies with everybody."
Whatever the case, most agree Van Sommeran deserves kudos for his work as
an advocate for shark conservation, said Klimley, who describes Van Sommeran
as a "folk hero" to local surfing and fishing communities.
"Sean's value is more as a promoter of shark research," he said. "Sean
has been a great popularizer of sharks and that's his strength, not as a
Van Sommeran plans to continue dedicating his life to the animal that
caught his fancy as a kid.
A man who thinks of humans "as these big fire-making mobs who run
buffalos over cliffs," Van Sommeran considers himself foremost an
environmentalist. But he admits he is also a man with a short attention span
who needs work that keeps him on his feet.
"I'm just so stoked to be living in such close quarters to such an
amazing creature. It helps to inspire me daily," he says, pausing for a sly
grin, "partially just to confound my foes."
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