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The Pelagic Shark Research Foundation
By Christa Fraser



The World’s Online Marketplace


One of the world’s most ancient apex predators, the Great White Shark, made an appearance last November amongst the fossilized shark teeth, Jaws posters, Hummel figurines, Russian war memorabilia and the other offerings found on eBay, “the world’s online marketplace.”


Fisherman Fred Arnaldi had caught a 14-foot long, 1800-pound female great white, carcharadon carcharias, in a halibut gill net in Morro Bay. Not quite sure what to do with his catch, he contacted a fish merchant, who then went where anyone would go these days to get rid of something unusual- online.


The Pelagic Shark Research Foundation (PSRF, a Santa Cruz based organization), caught wind of the shark catch when Pelagic member Jeff Rheinhardt witnessed the fishing boat entering the harbor. Pelagic stepped in to stop the bizarre auction- but not until bids for the shark had reached more than 4,000 dollars. Director and co- founder of PSRF (and a third generation American mariner), Sean Van Sommeran appealed to the fisherman’s sensibilities by explaining the ethical dubiousness of selling a protected species, and by offering to repair his damaged net and return the shark’s jaws to him following a necropsy, or autopsy, of the unfortunate fish.


The shark, which was named Pangaea, “after a dead continent” according to Van Sommeran, was gift-wrapped in a blue tarp and hauled via a flatbed pickup to the Department of Fish and Game’s facilities at Long Marine Lab in Santa Cruz.


The PSRF arranged a necropsy, an important event in the field of white shark research because so few intact specimens are available for thorough examination. Time Magazine, National Geographic and the San Francisco Chronicle, among other media representatives, documented the packed, daylong procedure.


“It was a coup for Pelagic,” PSRF photographer Callaghan Fritz- Cope explained before the autopsy.



Basking Shark Boat Ramps


Pelagic has always been a bit of a maverick operation. In the world of multi-million dollar research grants and legendary researchers like Burney Le Boeuf, (considered to be the leading authority on Northern Elephant Seal behavior), Team Pelagic, with their two 22-foot long boats, is a comparatively small operation.


When asked by a young couple if he was one of the professors, Van Sommeran responded, “No, I’m their stunt double.”


While the team has an assortment of members, students, and assistants, Van Sommeran, Callaghan Fritz- Cope and graduate student Scott Davis comprise the core of the operation.


Van Sommeran’s history over the last decade is inseparable from the rise of Pelagic itself. Van Sommeran, 38, was laid off from the Department of Fish and Game in 1989. Before working on several fish studies projects with DFG, he worked for the National Marine Fisheries, which is a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Moss Landing Marine Lab aboard the research vessel, ‘Point Sur’. He also attended junior college; “I was an anthropology major,” he says of his education, which didn’t culminate in a formal degree.


The DFG had bought colored and coded tags in the eighties to begin a shark tagging program, but hadn’t used them seriously due to a lack of funding. When Van Sommeran lost his job, he asked DFG if he could conduct the tagging operation on a volunteer basis.


By 1990, basking sharks, huge plankton eaters, had begun entering Monterey Bay in numbers that hadn’t been witnessed in decades. Known to be docile, the basking sharks became objects of harassment by curious spectators. Pelagic had been tagging the sharks, and was dismayed to find that several arrows, sunk up to the feathers, were lodged in the back of one of the giants. As the result of an article that confused them with white sharks, more people turned out to harass the creatures, some even using them as “launch ramps for their boats.”


PSRF invited local media to come out on a skiff with them to document the gentleness of the giants. “It turned us into activists,” said Van Sommeran. They then contacted several organizations, including Greenpeace and Earth Island Institute, who eventually took on the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation as a non-profit sub group.


In 1992, the White Shark Project, conducted off of Ano Nuevo Island  (about 20 miles north of Santa Cruz), began. The objective was to photograph and tag as many Great Whites as possible. Lamnidae, the family to which white sharks belong, has been around for at least 100 million years.


The group has been tagging Whites since 1995. Although Van Sommeran has been “full time Pelagic,” while working odd jobs on a fishing charter, a sailboat, at a bookshop, and for National Geographic and Discover to make ends meet since 1992.


Staff photographer Callaghan Fritz- Cope also does not possess a formal college degree. Yet the skills that he has mastered are invaluable for his work with PSRF. He is a dive master, a pilot, and rescue diver, as well as an accomplished photographer and videographer. Fritz- Cope has worked with National Geographic and Discover, as well as the BBC. Currently, he is working on a project in South America.


Tow headed, Kentuckian Scott Davis, meanwhile, owns the honorable title of being the last graduate student to ever study under Le Bouef before he retires. He is working on his Masters degree in “large scale movement patterns of white sharks.” Davis also works collaboratively at the Farallon Islands north of San Francisco tracking great whites off the coast of California. “Ideally, we’d like to determine if the populations at Ano Nuevo and the Farallons overlap,” he explains. Additionally, Davis has previously tagged grizzlies in Wyoming and worked as a field biologist for the Nature Conservancy in Palau, Micronesia. Like Fritz- Cope, he is a photographer who has worked with National Geographic, Discover and the BBC. He is also a rescue diver, a pilot, and divemaster.


This team seems more than qualified to handle documenting and tagging 12 foot to twenty foot long sharks, boat side, with a lance and a couple of cameras.


Shark Research Is not so Glamorous…


On a typical winter morning between October and February, Van Sommeran, a cherubic man with a deadpan humor, fires up his 22 foot long Chris Craft boat,’ Pelagic 1’, at its berth in the Santa Cruz Yacht Harbor.


Predawn, he waits for someone to show up at the lone gas tank, so he can put the $50-$60 worth of gas in his boat for the approximately 40 mile round trip to Ano Nuevo and back. With little funding money, the research that Pelagic does is paid for largely out of the pockets of its three principals and participants.


The boat heads out of the harbor and into the protected waters of Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The choppy 45-minute boat ride is typically quiet, with the sun rising behind them.The hope on the way to Ano Nuevo is that the weather will be favorable, the swells small, and that the water will be clear and flat…and that there will be shark activity.


“We can’t see them, but they can see us,” Van Sommeran joked about the sharks on low visibility days. “They have much more sophisticated apparatus for detection.”


The Island is the winter home to California Sea Lions, and one of the most significant rookeries and resting places for northern elephant seals, which makes the island a veritable smorgasboard for sharks.


There can be treacherous swells surrounding the island. One break in particular, the “Chopping Block” as its affectionately called, is notorious for disappearing until PSRF staff are just about on top of it, with a shark in sight, and then rearing up into a steep, ugly break.


The sharks are lured to the side of the boat by a specially permitted process (It is illegal to hunt, fish for, pursue or otherwise harass White Sharks in California waters, according to assembly bill 522). When one has made contact with the lure, an ID photo is taken of its dorsal and caudal fins, and GPS points are recorded. The lure is then reeled in. At that point, the shark hopefully passes close enough to the boat to be tagged and have a tissue sample taken.


Occasionally, a shark will approach the boat with its snout. “We don’t allow them to bump us. As we reel it in, I am thinking two things: be prepared to tag the shark, and/or fend it off with a gentle but firm nudge.” Van Sommeran explains.


Davis adds, “For the most part, they are extremely passive in their investigations.”         


Nonetheless, Whites are very agile and can turn around rapidly. They also engage in spy hopping, in which they raise their entire head and upper torso above water to look around. They are fast, even with bodies that can reach twenty feet in length and 4500 pounds. “Dripping wet, they probably reach 5,000 pounds,” says Van Sommeran. Some Whites have even been seen breaching completely out of the water. 


Many days are spent bobbing in the small boat for hours (seasickness is a common problem for students and reporters, “but not for the seaworthy, salty dog,” according to Davis), and then turning around, having seen nothing. Van Sommeran often spends the lag time catching, photographing and releasing fish for a guide to Monterey Bay rockfish species that he plans to compile.



Until the Sharks Show Up…


Much of our fear and knowledge of Great Whites arises as much from what we can’t see as from what we can. A report that appeared in Fisheries, a scientific journal, last year listed several species of sharks, including Great Whites, as being in danger of extinction.  Yet, no one really knows how many Great Whites exist, where they breed, or where they give birth. Nor is it known what kind of life expectancy they have.


When Pangaea was autopsied, she was estimated to be about 14 years old. Even at that size and age, she was found to be lacking in signs of sexual maturity- a prepubescent shark.  It is estimated that females don’t reach maturity until around the age of 20. Could we be looking at a species that lives as long as humans, or even longer?“  We could be,” Davis says. “Yes, definitely,” Van Sommeran concurs.


Large predator species typically have longer gestation periods and produce fewer young. For a species that is at the top of the food chain, these procreation strategies have historically worked. Yet, with increasing human encroachment on the oceans, global fondness for shark delicacies (such as the fins and jaws), gill netting, and the age-old fear of sharks that has led to the sanctioning of their destruction, these same reproductive characteristics may contribute to their undoing, as they become unable to replace members of their species who die.


PSRF has thus far tagged a total of 71 Whites since 1995, and have planted 10 acoustic transmitters. Davis has collaboratively planted seven satellite tags with the Farallons researchers. The data received from the acoustic transmitters was recently published. Meanwhile Davis is currently analyzing the data from the satellite devices, which will help to answer some questions about the sharks’ habits and range.



Shark Attacks


After a lecture on Great White Sharks at UC Santa Cruz, a female student raised her hand.


“Is it true that shark attacks are on the rise around the world?” She asked lecturer Van Sommeran.


“Yes, there are more shark attacks. But there are also more people breaking their legs, falling off of cliffs and getting in car accidents. There are just more people,” he replied.


Later, he explains that there have been less than 100 reported shark attacks since the 1920’s, with less than a dozen resulting fatalities. “Great Whites are actually in third place as a shark that attacks humans,” Van Sommeran emphasizes. Yet, this past year alone, humans accidentally killed at least four great whites in central California waters. Those deaths, of course, are just the ones that have been documented.


“White sharks have been glamorized in popular media, and have an image as man eaters. But in this day and age, we should be mature enough to recognize their role as normal animals in the intricate web of the world’s oceans,” Davis emphasizes.


With the possibility of the extinction of white sharks in the near future and the relative rarity of attacks on humans, it is unclear which species should be more afraid of the other.

Originally published here:


  June 7th 2004  

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