SAVE OUR SHARKS: Beneath the Waves on Expedition in the Bahamas Shark Sanctuary

Members of the Beneath the Waves expedition team prepare a shark for tagging. Credit: Kristin Hettermann.

Members of the Beneath the Waves expedition team prepare a shark for tagging. Credit: Kristin Hettermann.

“Sharks aren’t going to save themselves.”

—Dr. Austin Gallagher

Chief Scientist Dr. Austin Gallagher of Beneath the Waves, a non-profit organization that is working to conserve, protect, and restore the health of our oceans, speaks in a very matter-of-fact manner, with a cool, casual, guy-next-door demeanor. He slings massive grouper heads around a cooler and arranges weights and buoys around the deck of the boat, as we prepare to embark on our first day of research together. Our goals? Find, catch, tag, sample, and release as many sharks as  possible. We will also apply behavioral tags to sharks to track their residency in the Bahamas Shark Sanctuary and conduct physiological work-ups to evaluate shark health. “Sharks are one of the most threatened groups of animals on the planet,” says Gallagher. “Our organization collects info on sharks, their prey, and the ocean environment, to augment our understanding of how the ocean works, what our role as humans is in the grand scheme of things, and what we need to do in order to save the ocean.”

Clearly dedicated to his best friend on the planet—the shark, our oceans’ top predator—he is brimming with excitement over the prospect of encounters with tigers, Caribbean reef sharks, and hammerheads in these crystal-clear waters off Great Exuma Island in the Exuma chain of the Bahamas. Not a bad day at the office for this scientist who has been working in the Bahamas since 2010. “Truthfully, the most important thing for you to understand is that we do everything we can to minimize any harm or stress to the shark. I love these animals more than you could know,” says Gallagher. It is clear that this scientist, who has been in love with sharks since childhood and has been studying them professionally for over ten years, has founded his organization in order to educate the public on ways that the global population can all “minimize any harm or threat to the shark.”

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As a decades-long underwater explorer and ocean photographer, I came onto the Beneath the Waves research vessel lugging along a bit of guilt. Catching and tagging seemed so invasive: I’d heard many people make comments about scientific efforts that, arguably, go too far. This was one of the reasons I had accepted Dr. Gallagher’s invitation to join his team of researchers, creatives, entrepreneurs, and change-makers. I wanted to see first-hand what it means to engage so closely with this majestic animal—part super hero/part man-eating destroyer—that instills such terror in people. This animal elicits so much fear, in fact, that it is the number one reason people who would like to explore the underwater world never do.

Gallagher is an enthusiastic teacher of his favorite subject. “Sharks live rough and tumble lives out there in the seas, where every day is life or death. Their immune system is strong—scientists have long been studying their resiliency—under extremely stressful circumstances. I can tell you with confidence that anything these sharks might experience today from our research efforts should really be compared to a spa day relative to their normal daily agenda.” It is generally assumed that sharks can’t feel pain; sharks are fish and most experts agree that fish do not have the proper nervous system capabilities for feeling pain. This made me feel a lot better, and a better mantra replaced the guilt—no pain, all gain.

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“We’ve got to collect the data, and this is the most cost- and time-effective method discovered to date to maximize research and minimize stress to the animal.” Gallagher fills me in on exactly what their process will be that day, inspiring a bit of a flashback to my high school marine biology teacher, Mrs. Wu, who was the last person to escort me to this area of the Bahamas over twenty years ago. At that time, I remember a sea full of fish, abundant corals, but not many sharks. It was in these very waters I took my first underwater photos. This trip immersed me in the ocean that I had only known by photos in text books and in movies, and inspired a part of my soul that is still fueled by creative curiosity and an innate manifesto to do good in the world.

“Everyone loves methods,” Gallagher says, as he explains how they catch the sharks, a simple yet well thought-out homemade contraption that they have been using successfully for over a decade. A large thin hook holds a fish head to catch and secure the shark (designed specifically so that the shark, when biting down on the fish head, receives a piercing not too different than an ear piercing, but through the cheek). The hook is attached to a line, which ensures that when a shark bites, it can continue to have ample space to swim and roam safely after the engagement. The line is attached to a fifty-pound weight with a line that leads up to a floating buoy with a location signal on the surface. “Science doesn’t have to be complicated to be interesting or impactful,” he says, as he hooks a fish head and tosses it into the ocean. We would throw ten baited hooks out and then cruise to a waiting spot, to return about an hour later and one by one, pull up each bait line with hopes of catching a shark to begin the scientific work. We did this again and again, until the setting sun told us it was time to call it a day.

In those sweet in-between times, as we waited for the sharks to bite, the research team would gather in the boat and organize, eat, and fill me in on 25 years of history in the Bahamas leading up to our day in the boat. In 1993, the government of the Bahamas banned longline fishing, which targets tuna and billfish but often snares sharks as bycatch. In 2011, they established their waters as an official shark sanctuary, adding a layer of protection and enforcing a no kill/no catch policy for sharks, except for those engaging in research with permits. For Dr. Gallagher and his shark-loving global associates, this was a big win. In 2011, Dr. Gallagher actually spearheaded a now-famous scientific study of the value of live sharks to the diving industry, which profoundly moved the dial as sharks are now legitimately recognized as being worth more alive than dead. Bahamian officials decided to take a chance on this line item idea, proposed to positively affect the Bahamian tourism economy. “I’ve traveled the world and no place compares to the Bahamas in terms of shark diversity and abundance. It is the ideal place to study what the oceans should look like with healthy shark populations,” he states.

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Shark sanctuaries are management tools for coastal and island governments seeking to reduce shark mortality in their waters. Sanctuary designations typically prohibit the commercial fishing of all sharks, the retention of sharks caught as bycatch, and the possession, trade, and sale of sharks and shark products within a country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). But how valuable, exactly, are marine parks and sanctuaries? Do they make a difference to the survival and daily lives of the shark, and how do sharks use them? There are many marine parks popping up around the world—but, increasingly, there are discussions surrounding the illusions around “paper parks,” parks established on paper, but with little or no ability to enforce their guidelines and conduct research to monitor success and produce supporting scientific data.

Beneath the Waves is conducting research aimed to ensure that sanctuaries will continue to function properly, and the information gathered can promote the long-term health of the animals. Gallagher says, “As things change—countries undergo economic hardships or government regimes change—there is a constant threat to the sanctity of these marine protected areas. Sharks are threatened by boats from other countries and foreign interests that want to pillage and fish these shark-rich areas. This area is the most diverse and abundant sanctuary in the western hemisphere so it needs to remain intact. Right now, it is a safe haven where sharks can live risk-free. But it must be maintained and studied in order for other countries to get on board with protecting shark stocks globally. We want to get the full picture, what residency and behavior is like in and outside the sanctuary. Some sharks will leave the Bahamas, where they will then be especially vulnerable. Believe it or not, most of this information did not exist, until recently.”

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The common fear of that which is beneath the waves is a static state in the Bahamas, with locals being so terrified of sharks that the mass majority do not know how to swim and do not go into the ocean. When I told people on land that I was in the Bahamas to observe and study sharks in the wild, I received a broad range of reactions but most of them included an incredulous expression and a statement like, “You mean you go into the water. . .with sharks?” It was such a foreign concept, they almost didn’t believe me. I often had to repeat my intention. Then I showed them my photos. Jaws dropped.

Elton Dames, a local Bahamian, explained this reaction to me when he joined us one day on behalf of The Exuma Foundation. “You see, we fear what we don’t understand. Bahamians are a very peaceful culture; our heritage understands compassion and chill. If you see a shark move all crazy, we just don’t understand those aggressive movements. So, we interpret them as fearful. And it keeps us from getting more comfortable with the ocean and learning more about it.” He admitted that a big influence on the high level of fear are movies and media, and that habits and beliefs are passed down generationally.

Dames believes the fear of sharks is rooted in their mystery. And exposure is the key to fighting fear. “I am so fortunate to be here. Today was the closest I’d been to a shark and it was a great experience. Everything was cool and it encourages me more to interact and get more exposure to sharks.”

In 2018, Beneath the Waves launched one of the first long-term studies focused on understanding the benefits of shark sanctuaries to sharks throughout the year, with a long-term project focusing on the Bahamas Shark Sanctuary. The ambitious and productive Bahamas Shark Sanctuary initiative links together nearly 20 high-impact partners—research organizations, universities, nonprofits, governments, philanthropists, entrepreneurs, and local businesses—to conduct the research needed to collaboratively demonstrate the value of protecting sharks in large-scale protected areas. “We are implanting various species of sharks in the Bahamas with internal acoustic transmitters and monitoring their habitat use throughout the year with fixed receiver stations,” Gallagher explains. “Efforts are focusing primarily on Caribbean reef sharks, which are a strong model species due to their abundance, coastal life histories, economic importance through diving, and similarities to reef sharks in other parts of the world.” We would have the opportunity to tag over 15 of those Caribbean reef sharks over the three days that I joined them. In addition, we tagged two tiger sharks (including Rainbow, the first tiger shark that has ever been satellite-tagged in the Exumas and was released under a double rainbow that appropriately blessed our final day. Since the expedition she has been transmitting locations live from the Exumas).  

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The research process on the water is quick, focused, and in most cases, takes under seven minutes. After confirming a shark is hooked, the team pulls it in to the back of the boat, sometimes troubleshooting problems like lines wrapped around a sea fan, twisted with anchors, and managing the sometimes erratic behavior of the shark. The team wrapped a rope around the shark tail and secured the two sides of the animal taut and safely on the far cleats of the boat, so that the shark lined up exactly along the back platform. Then they would go to work—everyone had an important job, from holding the massive animal, to making incisions and doing the tag-implantation surgery, or drawing blood and tissue samples, and recording the new identification data for the research initiative. At the end of the process, the shark is released freely back into the open ocean.

Scientific Data Process: What is gathered in the 7-minute process

  • Measurements: Size of animals in an area, which infers maturity and ecological interactions.

  • Spaghetti tag: For ID purposes, if a shark is caught again, broad-scale movements and growth can be determined.

  • Fin clip: For genetic studies on population structure/size, dietary studies using stable isotopes (a long-term signature of diet based on carbon), all of which are important for population monitoring and detection of areas which are most important to shark health.

  • Muscle sample: Analysis of short-term diet using carbon and accumulation of heavy metals (indicates general health and impacts of pollution).

  • Blood sample: Information on short-term diet (fast turnover rate), energy levels, fats, stress, health, reproductive hormones, and longevity. This is the ultimate health screen for sharks, recording health and nutritional condition which can be compared to other islands/areas to triage sections for conservation.

I had no idea I would be experiencing minor surgery during this time observing these scientists’ efforts on the back of the boat. Their focus, ability to perform, and agility dealing with these strong and aggressive creatures was impressive. Primarily, they focused on acoustic tagging, which is the go-to method for studying and monitoring shark movements in restricted areas as well as broad-scale environments. It’s a relatively easy procedure, where the shark is captured, gently restrained, and then briefly inverted where it goes into a trance-like state called tonic immobility. This evolutionary adaptation is often used by sharks in mating. The researchers then make a very small incision on the ventral musculature, insert the tag (the size of an AA battery), then the site is quickly stitched up. The tag will send out a ping with a uniquely identifiable code every 60 seconds or so for the next seven to ten years (each tag goes for an affordable $300).

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This line item is important for leading, yet budget-conscious, conservation research non-profit organizations like Beneath the Waves, putting everything on the line to understand these threatened animals in hopes of inspiring future conservation wins for these species they love.

The acoustic tagging method is widespread in the scientific community, and has produced decades of exciting data worldwide, with years of passive monitoring, showing residency habits throughout the year in coral reefs, open oceans, and in-shore areas for many species. These data, combined with socioeconomic research on the value of sharks to the diving industry, can show how valuable sharks are at an individual level, to individual islands, and to the Bahamas throughout the year. The scientists want to test whether these data can link the importance of the sanctuary to the survival of sharks as they grow.

Satellite tags, at $2000 a pop, are reserved for wide-ranging tiger sharks. With their pelagic movements, we have the most to learn about their migration patterns. Because they are constantly on the move, a limited-range acoustic receiver is inadequate to the task of tracking them. Satellite tags track movements in real time, also highlighting any overlaps with fisheries and time spent in protected areas for time-area closures. The application for these includes drilling four small holes into the dorsal fin, which has no nerve or blood supply, and affixing the tag which will remain for 1-2 years before falling off.

Finally, we placed receivers, which listen for the pings of tagged sharks. Any shark or fish implanted with an acoustic tag will be recorded if it swims within 500-750 meters of a receiver. “It records presence only, but over many months, we can understand seasonal and annual residency, preferred areas, home ranges, and connectivity between islands. The batteries last nine to 12 months, so we have to return one to two times a year to change our batteries and download the data,” says Gallagher.

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Ultimately, data collected by Beneath the Waves and their partners will shed light on the proportion of time the sharks remain inside the Bahamas EEZ, the degree of connectivity between islands, their social networks, and whether they are picked up in other places in the Atlantic and Caribbean. “This is a long-term project, with a number of short-term sub-projects. The movement data from tags and receivers will need two to three years of recordings before we can have a complete picture,” Gallagher says. “But data from satellite tagging is compiled and published in real-time. Physiological data [information regarding muscle, tissue, blood, fin] are frozen, stored, and analyzed within six months for projects on health.” All data gathered for the database will advance the scientific consensus on this valuable management tool, and provide evidence to maintain the sanctuary in the Bahamas while serving as a model to other countries. “I think this project is going to be a game-changer for sharks,” affirms Gallagher, whose team has completed 3 large-scale trips to the Bahamas in 2018, implanting over 60 sharks with transmitters, creating arrays on two islands, and fostering collaborations with other groups in the Bahamas also studying sharks.

We know sharks are good for reefs ecologically, but they are also valuable economically. With a trend rising to protect sharks globally, it’s clear that shark conservation is currently a “cool” issue to advocate for. Many governments are now facing pressure to protect sharks and extinguish the markets that threaten them (like recent victories banning shark fin soup in China, the largest single stressor to shark populations globally).

Through their work with the Bahamas Shark Sanctuary, Gallagher and his associates hope to show other island nations that protecting sharks can have concrete financial benefits. A shark is worth a certain amount of dollars per day for diving tours, and multiplied by the days a person spends in the country, you have a monetary incentive to conserve them.

Gallagher offers me a final reality check and a splash of hope and determination for our endangered shark populations:

“Say a reef shark is detected for six years consistently, we can then calculate precisely that shark’s total economic value. Government officials think sharks move around constantly. . .this is not necessarily true. They are fixed resources that are crucial for island nations. I think our data will demonstrate this. The Bahamas is a model for other countries. But also, the Bahamas Shark Sanctuary needs to stay intact. It is a global treasure. With changing political landscapes, you never know. So, we are staying on it.”

Expedition Team:

Dr. Austin Gallagher
CEO, Beneath the Waves

Oliver Shipley
Research Scientist, Beneath the Waves

Steve Kessel
Director of Marine Research, Shedd Aquarium

Tony Gilbert
Director of Programming, The International SeaKeepers Society

James K. Sternlicht
Director of Strategic Development, Oceanic Global

Sami Kattan
Founder, Creative Director


Kristin Hettermann