Great white shark expedition is launched; researchers hope to tag 20 off Chatham

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FALMOUTH — A team of researchers embarked today on a monthlong expedition to capture and tag as many as 20 great white sharks in what is expected to be the largest study of the sharks in US history.

Scientists from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution will collect a slew of new data on the sharks’ feeding, breeding. and migration patterns, researchers said.

The number of great whites off Cape Cod has exploded in the past 10 years as the seal population has grown, said Dr. Greg Skomal, a senior scientist with the Division of Marine Fisheries who is working on the expedition.

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The state began electronically tagging sharks in 2009, he said, but the expedition launched today is the largest effort yet.

“We are playing catch-up and this is a huge part of that,” he said. “I see this as a golden opportunity to build on the foundation that we have created over the last four summers.”

The researchers’ boat will park in the waters off Chatham, an area teeming with thousands of gray seals, a favorite meal for the sharks, said Chris Fischer, the expedition leader and the founding chairman of OCEARCH, a nonprofit that specializes in shark research.

“We are basically basking in the 15,000 seals that are defecating and urinating and bleeding and breeding and stinking,” he said. “We are taking advantage of that opportunity. The white sharks are already predictably there because that is there, and we are going to get inside of that and become a part of that.”

The researchers will capture the sharks in the water and hoist them aboard their 126-foot ship using a custom 75,000-pound shark lift, he said.

They will have 15 minutes to apply five tags and collect tissue samples from the sharks.

The tags will note the shark’s location when they come up from the water as well as the depth of their dives and the temperature of the water, said Dr. Simon Thorrold, a senior scientist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute.

Fischer said the expedition will provide new knowledge on the sharks that will not only increase public safety but take away some of the fear humans have of the sharks.

“When we go out there and collect this data and start to solve this puzzle of their lives, facts come in,” Fischer said. “The tone of the conversation shifts from the theme music of ‘Jaws’ to one of curiosity and that is inspiring to people.”

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