Conservation & Science

Our commitment to science: white shark research

Monterey Bay Aquarium has since its inception affirmed that we are a science-driven organization, and that science underpins all of our public policy, research and education programs. That’s why we’re a partner with the national March for Science, a series of more than 500 events around the world on April 22.

As part of our commitment to the scientific process, our white shark research team works to understand and conserve these vital ocean predators. In advance of the March for Science, we’re taking a look at many of our scientific initiatives—in research, policy and education. Here’s a look at some of our recent white shark science highlights.

Annual Field Research

Every fall for the last decade, the Aquarium’s white shark research team has headed out to the Farallon Islands off the coast of San Francisco to tag, track, and identify white sharks as they feed on elephant seals and sea lions. The team observes behavior, captures underwater video, and deploys electronic tracking tags that relay information about white shark migrations and habitat preferences. When the team returns to the lab, they combine and analyze all these data to better understand white shark populations and their role in maintaining the healthy ocean ecosystems that ultimately support all life on Earth.

Celebrity (Shark) Profiles

What do Jay Leno, Elvis Presley, and Alfred Hitchcock all have in common? For one, their profiles happen to bear uncanny likeness to certain white shark dorsal fins. Just like a human fingerprint, each shark’s dorsal fin is entirely unique.

When you stare at shark fins all day, you start to see things – like Jay Leno’s profile.

By taking photos of shark fins sighted at the Farallon Islands for nearly a decade, our research team has identified 250 individual sharks—and many of these sharks have been visiting the Farallones for up to 25 years. Identifying individual white sharks and tracking them over time allow us to estimate population sizes, compare migration patterns, and support science-based management policies that will ensure these animals thrive for future generations.

Shark Mummies Reveal Science Secrets

The Aquarium and our scientific colleagues in Mexico are part of an international collaboration to protect threatened white shark populations. To protect them effectively, we need to understand where and how far they travel. Sometimes they uncover data in unusual places. Case in point: The teeth from mummified white shark heads found in a secret graveyard in the deserts of Baja California held essential clues. Genetic material gathered from the teeth of mummified white sharks helped determine that the Mexican and Californian shark populations are one and the same—an important discovery as we strive to protect white sharks during their international migrations.

Bahia Sebastian Vizcaino, part of a biosphere reserve in Mexico supports newborn white sharks. Photo courtesey of NASA, by Paolo Espoli, ESA

White Shark Birthplace

A recent study resulting from close teamwork with our research colleagues in Mexico reveals that Bahía de Sebastián Vizcaíno, a warm embayment on the coast of Baja California, is a nursery area for newborn white sharks. Many shark species, including white sharks, give live birth to litters of pups that spend their first few months in protected coastal waters. This is a period when sharks are actually quite vulnerable. Identifying elusive white shark nursery areas is a big step for Aquarium teams and our partners who have worked for 30 years on this topic. These findings are the result of U.S. – Mexico research collaboration and provide relevant science informing management policies that are crucial for protecting these apex ocean predators and the ecosystems they depend on.

White shark swallows a tag that will measure changes in stomach temperature after it feeds.

In the Belly of the Beast

Aquarium researchers understand that white sharks likely play an important role in maintaining balance in the ocean food web. Knowing when and where sharks feed can help researchers and fisheries managers identify places in need of protection so shark populations can thrive. To study this aspect of shark ecology, field researchers wrapped specialized temperature- and motion-sensing electronic tags inside a shark-bait sandwich and convinced the sharks to swallow the tags using a seal-shaped decoy. Like owls, sharks spit up indigestible materials from their meals after a about a week, so retrieving the tags—and all the data revealing the sharks’ activity and feedings—was simpler than you might think.

A great white shark takes a Cafe Cam tag for a spin along the Central California coast — a prelude to deploying these tags on sharks that will head west to the White Shark Cafe.

Eating or Meeting?

Deemed the White Shark Café, a vast expanse of ocean between California and Hawaii sees high levels of white shark activity each year. Why they congregate is a mystery—one that Aquarium scientists hope to solve. Aquarium Senior Research Scientist Sal Jorgensen suggests the sharks could be eating (prey) or meeting (members of the opposite sex), much as we might do in a popular café. But until we see for ourselves what those sharks are up to—it will remain a mystery. So, Sal teamed up with engineers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute to develop a specialized video camera tag that—we hope—will record footage of white shark behavior in this desolate location far from shore. Depending on what the cameras reveal, it could provide insight into why this region might be especially important to white shark survival in a changing ocean.

To learn more about our white shark science, check out our list of publications here. If you’d like to get involved with the March for Science, you can find an event near you.

— Athena Copenhaver, Conservation Research

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