A six-foot-eight-inch hammerhead shark skims the surface of the ocean, lurking closer and closer to the stern of the boat and its 22 passengers.
This is not a sequel to the 1975 shark attack thriller Jaws. There is no ominous song playing in the background, foreshadowing a brutal attack on the unsuspecting victims.
The hammerhead, hook in mouth, is merely the catch of the day.
“Guys we have to act quickly on this one,” shouts Neil Hammerschlag as he ropes in the fishing line, hauling the shark nearer to the boat. “This guy can be temperamental.”
Hammerschlag is a shark researcher and doctoral candidate at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. His current research focuses on predator-prey interaction. More specifically, he is examining how sharks control the behaviors of fish through the element of fear.
“The reason that’s important is because shark populations are declining worldwide,”Hammerschlag said. “We’re not quite sure what the effects are going to be on the ecosystem without sharks.”
As founder and co-director of the South Florida Student Shark Program, Hammerschlag accompanies high school and college students on trips to capture and tag sharks several times a month, eight months out of the year. He uses the data collected by students to write and publish scientific reports and further his dissertation research.
“The students feel good helping someone with real life data,” said Ted Davis, director of South Broward High School’s maritime magnet program. “They love it, but it’s also more than that. It gives them a reason to pursue maritime careers. You can’t get a feel for marine culture unless you go out and experience it.”
On one trip taken on Oct. 9, 10 students and two faculty members from South Broward High School’s marine magnet program joined Hammerschlag and five college volunteers on a boat trip out of Islamorada. Ten sharks were captured, tagged and released in the waters off of Florida Bay.
“I love the hands-on contact with sharks,” said Tallulah Orcel, a junior at South Broward High School. “It motivates me so much to pursue what I want to do. You know sharks exist, but you don’t realize they are only a boat ride away. It really opens my eyes.”
With 10 fish in hand out of 20 lines cast, most fishermen would declare the day successful, proud to put dinner on the table for the wife and kids. But Hammerschlag doesn’t get to bring home his prized catches. He releases the sharks back into the ocean and brings the data he collects back to the lab for research.
That doesn’t mean, however, that his wife isn’t just as impressed. Hammerschlag recently married fellow marine biologist Caroline Peyer in Toronto last month. The two newlyweds spent their honeymoon in French Poylnesia by taking a romantic dip in shark infested waters.
“I think a world without sharks would be probably a lot more boring and just, you know, drab,” Hammerschlag said. “I like to live in a world that contains sharks, just for the mystery and the richness they add to the planet.”
Hammerschlag’s interest in sharks stems from his childhood in South Africa, where shark nets are often submerged near coastlines in order to reduce the number of shark attacks and protect swimmers. As a boy, he witnessed the dissection of sharks on the beaches near Durban. Fascination took root and he charged full steam ahead, creating a career out of curiosity.
After receiving his doctorate in December, Hammerschlag says he plans to continue his work with the student shark program. He hopes to land a faculty position at a university.
Hammerschlag is also the co-founded the nonprofit organization Save the Blue, which promotes ocean awareness. The organization’s current crusade is against shark finning, a practice in which fishermen cut off sharks’ fins for commercial sale.
The fins are used in shark fin soup, a Chinese delicacy that often denotes wealth. A major factor in the worldwide decline in shark populations, shark finning kills 70 to 100 million sharks a year, says the researcher.
“Our life depends on the oceans and since the sharks keep the oceans in check and are at the top of the food chain it would be wise not to start destroying some of those important elements,” Hammerschlag said.