"... one can never tell what a shark is going to do." -Jacques Cousteau

Tagging of Pacific Predators / TOPP.org

TOPP Profile:
Sean Van Sommeran, Pelagic Shark Research Foundation / pelagic.org


Sean Van Sommeran secures the Mavrix at a mooring in Santa Cruz Harbor then assembles his team at the stern of the boat for a group photo. He flashes a boyish grin as he poses with five colleagues from the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation, a Santa Cruz based non-profit that Van Sommeran launched in 1987. The team's upright tagging poles reach towards the sky, beyond the top of the camera's viewfinder; their length is a vivid reminder that white shark tagging presents special challenges. A skilled team member must seize the all-too-brief window of opportunity to tag on the fly as TOPP's top predator glides silently alongside the vessel, which at times seems dwarfed by looming shape in the water.

Van Sommeran and his team are very good at this work, and he is justifiably proud of their efficiency and speed. This year, that prowess earned Van Sommeran a role in TOPP's white shark study and his crew has deployed over 14 pop up satellite tags on sharks that frequent the waters around Ano Nuevo Island, a major rookery for elephant seals.

A native Californian, Van Sommeran grew up in the coastal town of Santa Cruz, where the ocean gripped a growing boy's imagination and retained a profound hold on him as an adult. He recalls his youth in the 70's, when the movie "Jaws" colored public perception of white sharks with its graphic -- and distorted -- portrayal of the animal as a malevolent killing machine. Decades later, Van Sommeran and other shark experts still find it an uphill journey to dispel white shark misconceptions and educate the public about this much-maligned, and poorly understood species.

An upside of the white shark's high profile in popular culture is the curiosity it continues to arouse in people. Many a youngster has developed an enduring fascination with white sharks, and such interest frequently underpins careers of dedicated and highly focused professionals. Van Sommeran is a good example.

On a fishing trip with a family friend, Van Sommeran got a chance to see an actual white shark feeding event first hand. Watching the shark attack an elephant seal left a lasting impression on the twelve year old. As an adult, Van Sommeran worked for Fish and Game tagging rockfish and other species.

In 1989, following a trickle of reports from fishermen about large sharks near Santa Cruz., a local newspaper picked up the stories of white sharks swimming in numbers just off shore. "What they were seeing were basking sharks," explains Van Sommeran, who diligently contacted the newspaper to correct the misinformation and assure the public that the sharks were actually harmless- and vulnerable.

Van Sommeran watched with surprise and alarm as the public reaction shifted from fear to aggression. Suddenly, the hunt was on, from harassment by jet skiers and pleasure boaters to the sport and commercial fishers who targeted the sharks for their fins and livers.

Saddened by the wanton local desctrucion, and wanting to stem the general decline of shark populations, Van Sommeran solicited the help of the Earth Island Institute, and in 1990, launched the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation, a not-for-profit research, education and outreach organization. Since then, he has been and remains, a strident and tireless advocate for the open ocean predators.

Working entirely with volunteer staff, Van Sommeran and his team have access to three boats, which they deploy in a number of projects. Like TOPP colleague Scot Anderson, Van Sommeran's team scrupulously IDs the sharks visually, with the aid of a pole-mounted underwater video camera. Van Sommeran is also fortunate in having a professional photographer, Callaghan Fritz-Cope on staff, enabling the organization to boast an impressive collection of often-dramatic field shots of white sharks.

Van Sommeran is pleased to collaborate with TOPP, and the white shark researchers at Stanford are happy to have his organization on board. With the help of the Ano Nuevo group, this year has proven to be a watershed year for adult white shark tagging with more TOPP white shark tags in the field than ever before.

For Van Sommeran and his team at the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation, TOPP affiliation brings the group all the benefits of inclusion in a large, multidisciplinary project. The data from the sharks they tag will be analyzed in a broad multi-species context, and integrated with oceanographic data from remote sensing satellites. Soon, shark researchers will be looking at the tracks of white sharks from all three of the program's study areas. With a larger sample size of these sharks, we can only speculate about what new insights might emerge from the data.

For Van Sommeran and his colleagues, however, the work doesn't end when the TOPP tags are deployed. He is out on the water nearly every single day conditions permit. If he is not observing or tagging white sharks, he is taking individuals and groups out into his Santa Cruz "backyard" on chartered trips.

Originally posted on topp.org on 01/04/06

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White Shark, Carcharodon carcharias

Area of Operation, Aņo Nuevo Island

Callaghan skippers the Mavrix

PSRF research vessel Mavrix engaged with white shark off ANI

Callaghan Fritz-Cope catches a photo ID

Callaghan's ID of first dorsal

Prepared for deployment

Sean deploys a transmitter on 4 meter white shark

Team Pelagic engages a white shark during survey

A White Shark preys upon a seal off ANI

Sean Van Sommeran, Executive Director