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Nationally-known shark research group OCEARCH starts in Jacksonville for its next expedition

8:18 PM, Feb 22, 2013   |    comments
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- We've followed their research online by tracking Great White Sharks, Mary Lee and Genie. Now, the researchers of OCEARCH are in Jacksonville preparing for their latest expedition.

The crew will leave bright and early Saturday morning, headed for the Atlantic to continue research into the great white shark. Scientists say this is a continuation of the expedition in Cape Cod, where Mary Lee and Genie were tagged.

Expedition leader and founder of OCEARCH Chris Fischer said one goal of the expedition is to answer questions that came up during the sharks' time on the First Coast.

"Our sharks have come here and spent a significant period of time. So we want to find out why they're here and what they're doing."

In the past five years alone, Fischer has led 15 expeditions, covering more than 100,000 nautical miles trying to learn more about great white sharks.

"We don't understand what the white sharks are doing. We don't understand why they feed, why they breed. We don't understand where they give birth. So what we need to do is track them to solve the puzzle of their lives."

It'll be a tight team on the boat, each representing a bigger group of scientists trying to find out as much as possible about each shark in just about 15 minutes.

Researcher, Dr. Robert Hueter said it's sort of like a triage scene.

"The shark comes up here on the cradle and then we go to action taking blood. I'm using the blood to look at things like contaminants in the animals, mercury, and for that, just the general animal health."

"I'm specifically concerned about the physiology of the animal in terms of stress, and how the animal is actually feeling when we sample her," explains scientist Dr. Greg Skomal.

Also on-board will be some of the best and brightest scientists from across the country, including two from right here in North Florida. They'll be bringing a unique set of skills and tools to this expedition.

"We are going to be using our ultrasound to try and determine if any of the female sharks that we catch are pregnant."

Dr. Jim Gelsleichter is the Shark Program director at the University of North Florida. He'll be working alongside fellow scientists getting blood samples of any sharks the crew is able to catch.

"We use reproductive hormones, like estrogen and testosterone, the same hormones we have in our body to determine the state of reproduction the animals are in," Gelsleichter explains.

He's been working on great white sharks for 20 years, but says he's never handled one. And neither has his research assistant, Mike McCallister, who will also be going on the OCEARCH expedition.

"I just graduated in August, and being fairly young in my career as a marine biologist, this is something I've always dreamed about doing, but didn't think I'd be doing it this soon in my life," McCallister said with a smile.

"I'm really looking forward to the opportunity."

UNF will be well-represented on the boat, with several graduate assistants cycling in and out on the trip.

But Fischer said in addition to learning more about the great white shark, the shared goal is to eliminate the 'JAWS' stereotype.

"Mary Lee has been sticking her nose in every river up and down the eastern seaboard over the past several months, but we aren't hearing any bad news stories. And she's living on the beach. So her life is a perfect example of why fear doesn't need to exist."

UNF has also partnered with other groups to launch a Jacksonville-based component of shark tracking using offshore dive platforms with acoustic receivers to monitor sharks tagged with acoustic trackers.

The university has set it up so you can also contribute to the research and report a shark sighting. Just go to the UNF Shark Biology Program page, by clicking here.

First Coast News

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