Joint Effort Seeks To Shed Light on Great Whites

The team that captured and tagged the first juvenile great white shark in the Atlantic Ocean in 2015, from left to right, Maria Metzger, Jessica Quinlan, Greg Metzer and Rob Gelling. Justine Dille photo

By Stephen J. Kotz

To anyone whose sole exposure to sharks — particularly those of the great white variety — is the film, “Jaws,” the news that there is a nursery in the waters off Long Island, where little great whites do their teething on smaller fish, is hardly comforting.

But to Greg Metzger, who teaches marine science at Southampton High School, and Frank Quevedo, the director of the South Fork Natural History Museum, the discovery is exciting news because it provides an opportunity to conduct much needed research into the life of the often misunderstood great white shark in local waters and share it with the public through exhibits at the museum. They plan to do just that with the launch this year of the SoFo Shark Research and Education Program.

The two are founding members, along with Chris Paparo of Fish Guy Photos and Dr. Tobey Curtis of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, of the Long Island Shark Collaboration, which until three years ago was an informal club that allowed the four graduates of the Southampton College marine sciences program to cultivate their interest in sharks.

“About three years ago, we stopped talking about doing research and we decided let’s go out and see if we can target these young of the year,” said Mr. Metzger, who runs a side business, Reel Science Charters, and has been catching and releasing sharks for years. In 2015, “we satellite tagged the first in the Atlantic Ocean,” Mr. Metzger said. “Our work is significant because there are very few nurseries that have been identified in the world, and we are the first to identify the south shore of Long Island.”

“This is not new ecological information,” added Mr. Quevedo. “These sharks have been here perhaps for millions of years. But now the technology is allowing us to understand them better.”

That technology includes satellite tags, which allow scientists to track the whereabouts of the sharks they catch and release.

Justine Dill photo

“The monitoring of these sharks after they are tagged is where hopefully SoFo can start creating exhibits and kiosks and educational programs to update the community and make them aware of the work that is being done here,” said Mr. Quevedo. “So people can come here and see updated, real-time information.”

This year, thanks to a grant from the Southampton Educational Foundation, Mr. Metzger said the research team will begin to experiment with a retrievable satellite tag that is equipped with a high-definition camera and allows researchers to monitor a shark’s swimming habits.

“Those recordings will be available on the exhibits we are going to design and implement here,” said Mr. Quevedo.

“That’s going to be a game changer,” added Mr. Metzger, provided, of course, that the tag can be found once the research team releases it remotely from the shark. When the tag floats to the surface, it sends back its GPS position. “We plug that position into the boat and zoom out to the spot,” he said. “It also has a VHS transmitter, so as we get closer we’ll pick up the signal.”

“What we’ll do initially is very short deployments of one or two days, and what we know is most of the young stay very close to the coast. But then again, there are no guarantees.”

And just how close are those young sharks? Closer than you may think. “I have confirmed 10-foot white sharks that were caught in pound traps in Peconic Bay,” said Mr. Metzger. “And I have confirmed data from sharks we tagged two years ago three miles into the Great South Bay.” He has also seen photos of a young great white shark in Long Island Sound outside Port Jefferson. “There have been reports of great whites and threshers in Gardiner’s Bay and other inshore waters,” said Mr. Quevedo.

And for those afraid to put their toes in the water after hearing that news, Mr. Metzger has some reassuring words. “How many shark attacks have you heard about on Long Island?” he asked. The answer, he quickly added, is none. “That’s because there haven’t been any.”