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Teens get up-close and personal with wild sharks to encourage careers in science

Nicole Arroyo of Dania Beach snips a tissue sample from the fin of a blacktip shark, Wednesday, March 20, 2024 off the coast of Key Biscayne. A group of girl students was invited by the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine Science to accompany the school’s shark research program on a shark tagging trip.
Joe Cavaretta
South Florida Sun Sentinel
Nicole Arroyo of Dania Beach snips a tissue sample from the fin of a blacktip shark, Wednesday, March 20, 2024 off the coast of Key Biscayne. A group of girl students was invited by the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine Science to accompany the school’s shark research program on a shark tagging trip.

For many of us, the most intense science experience of our youth was dissecting a small frog. A group of a dozen teen girls from South Florida certainly have that beat.

On a recent breezy day on Biscayne Bay, they measured, tagged and sniped fin samples from several species of very live, and very wild sharks, including an 8-foot, 300-plus-pound tiger shark.

The program, supported by Canon cameras, paired local teenage girls who are interested in science with a mostly female team of researchers from the University of Miami’s shark research program.

Part of the university’s F.I.N.S. (Females in Natural Sciences) initiative, teen girls have the opportunity to spend the day on the water with women researchers as they catch and collect data for ongoing studies. Not only do the teens experience collecting data from wild animals and learn about South Florida’s marine ecosystems, they hang out with the women and talk about aspirations, challenges and future opportunities.

The hope that the experience will inspire more girls to enter STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. According to the National Science Foundation, women make up about one-third of STEM workforce in the U.S.

Once we reach the fishing spot in about 15 feet of water, just off Key Biscayne and within sight of the Miami skyline, the research team sets out the baits — a steak-size chunk of very fragrant false albacore tuna on a big circle hook designed to catch in the corner of the shark’s jaw, not its throat.

The hook is attached to a long stretch of fishing line, a heavy concrete weight and a big orange buoy. They set 10 baits out along a stretch of about half a mile, and then come back and check them an hour later. The outgoing tide carries the stink of the bait across acres of inshore water, seducing a menagerie of sharks. Hopefully.

In the meantime, the girls, who today came through a Broward nonprofit called Surf Skate Science, get a lesson on how to safely collect data while alongside a 350-pound predator. Then we wait.

‘She’s pregnant!’

All eyes are on lead scientist Catherine Macdonald as she pulls up the first buoy. Once she grabs the monofilament, the line comes tight, very tight. That means one thing — shark on. The girls get excited. The shark, a 5-foot blacktip, appears on the surface and surges. Macdonald has to brace herself and give some line back to the animal. Eventually she wins the battle.

A closeup of a shark's face.
Joe Cavaretta
South Florida Sun Sentinel
A blacknose shark is given a device that flushes seawater over its gills to keep it alive for five to seven minutes as the girls on a trip collected data. The shark, pregnant with four pups, is seen Wednesday, March 20, 2024, off the coast of Key Biscayne.

Once they pull the streamlined shark up on a floating Jet Ski dock that’s been converted into an examination platform, Macdonald she straddles its back and the team of researchers descend like a Formula 1 pit crew.

They pipe water over its gills, draw blood to measure stress response and gather other information, and use bolt cutters to clip the circle hook and slide it out of the corner of the shark’s mouth. It takes five to seven minutes to collect all the data from the shark, and another minute if they find a particularly cool parasite.

But instead of collecting all the data, they call in the first group of girls. One girl measures the shark’s length and girth; one gently hoses the shark down to keep its skin moist; another snips a fin sample and a fourth uses a tool to plunge the simple tag into the skin at the base of the dorsal fin.

For this first shark there’s a lot of guidance and reassurance, the female researchers walk them through everything.

The girl tasked with puncturing the skin below the dorsal with the screwdriver-like tag inserter — the physically most demanding job — struggles at first. The skin seems leather-tough. She pushes and pushes. Finally the tool breaks through the skin. She twists the device free, then reads the tag numbers aloud for confirmation. She steps off the platform with an unrestrained smile.

Then some unexpected news. A researcher scans an ultrasound device over the shark’s midsection. “She’s pregnant,” she yells, and cheers go up around the boat. The University of Miami shark team has projects looking at how pollutants affect blacktip shark pregnancy and offspring, so the data the girls just collected will help those efforts.

Macdonald had explained earlier that Biscayne Bay is important to at least seven species of sharks and rays for reproduction. It’s also the only established nursery area for great hammerheads on the east coast of the U.S. “So for a lot of shark species, we’re an important ecosystem. And we’re obviously heavily human-impacted,” she says.

One of the most urgent concerns for the bay is climate change. Though large sharks can swim away from overly hot water, the bay is a nursery. Rising water temperatures along Florida’s coast can exacerbate seagrass die-offs and stress corals to the point of bleaching. Both seagrass and coral support the bays biodiversity.

Twelve-year-old Chloe Contin, of Lake Worth, goes to American Heritage school. She had been watering the pregnant blacktip down to cool it off. “I was pretty close,” she said. “Because of movies or something, I thought it might bite. But obviously it didn’t, so, yeah.” She says she has wanted to be a scientist ever since she knew what one was. “I always wanted to be something with animals. Not so much math, because I stink at math. I’m here so if I become a marine biologist in the future, hopefully, then I will be able to know what I like doing. And maybe it can help me.”

Macdonald pushes the shark off the platform and it swims off fast. “Awesome job, everyone. Let’s go to it again!”

The tiger

The second bait has no shark. But the third one does. A big one.

As Macdonald pulls against the shark, it surfaces. “Tiger, tiger. He’s beautiful,” the girls yell. Apparently they know their sharks. Once it sees the boat it thrashes, splashing the girls on the side. “Oh, he’s mad!” a girl yells. It streaks off on a run.

Once the shark is on the platform, Macdonald and two others dive on its back to keep it from thrashing and hurting itself. Before they can stick the water tube into its mouth, it vomits up a bit of its last meal — some feathers.

The girls are awestruck. “Tiger sharks eat a lot of random things, from turtles to birds,” says researcher Emily Yeager. “Songbirds will travel really long distances and land on the ocean, and tiger sharks will come up and eat them.”

A group of people touch a shark.
Joe Cavaretta
South Florida Sun Sentinel
Researchers from the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine Science collect data on a tiger shark, Wednesday, March 20, 2024, off the coast of Key Biscayne. They are Catherine Macdonald, from left, assistant research professor and director, Shark Research and Conservation Program at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School, Jenny Norcross, M.S. student, Department of Environmental Science and Policy, and Emma Delillo, research assistant.

Mia Levine, 17, is from Boynton Beach and attends American Heritage Delray, had to insert the tag. She steps back on the boat with the giddiness you’d expect after a Taylor Swift concert. “It reminded me of when you get your ears pierced. They gave me a tool to put the tag in the shark and they handed me a mallet because it had thick skin. I had to hit the tagging tool with the mallet to get the tag into the shark because its skin was so thick.”

“The skin was leathery in one direction and smooth in the other direction because it has dermal denticles,” she said, explaining the microscopic texture of shark skin. “This is a totally cool new experience.”

The ornery nurse

Later, we haul in another 5-foot blacktip and a similar blacknose shark.

Next is an extremely surly nurse shark, about 8 feet long. Though relatively mellow when being reeled in, once it’s on the platform it transforms. Nurse sharks are “a little bit of a pain sometimes,” says researcher Amani Webber-Schultz. She’s wrangled many, and says they can buck like bulls once out of the water.

At 8 feet, it weighs at least 200 pounds. It just keeps bucking. The girls don’t seem intimidated at this point. By now, the fifth shark of the day, they’re practiced and primed. They get into position and rapidly move through their task, even as Macdonald, who has her torso atop the shark’s back, gets jostled around.

It takes three women to finally shove the nurse shark, an angry loaf, off the platform and back to sea. At the end of the day, Macdonald walks gingerly, a bit stiff, like a bull rider who’s just been thrown. When asked if she grew up wrestling, she laughs, and says, “No, but with two brothers.”

The girls and female researchers end the day with a small, “cute” blacktip, our sixth of the day.

As the boat motors through the bay, 17-year-old Kaylin Anderson, an aspiring marine biologist who lives in Miami Springs and is home schooled, recounts her highlights — measuring the big tiger shark. “It feels very extraordinary to be able to be that close to these beautiful animals that are huge and powerful. To be able to get that information from them is just breathtaking.”

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