OCEARCH kicks off Mid-Atlantic shark expedition in Norfolk

(Photo courtesy Steve Forss)

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — Norfolk’s Waterside Marina was recently visited by a ship that is known for taking on large expeditions. The M/V OCEARCH vessel, led by expedition leader Chris Fischer, just kicked off its 29th expedition which includes its first trip to Virginia, Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey.

The team is tagging and tracking mature white sharks in the Mid-Atlantic.

OCEARCH is a non-profit organization that researches great white sharks and other large predators at the top of the food chain to learn about the movement, biology, health and behavior of sharks in the Atlantic Ocean. The organization wants to protect the sharks’ future while enhancing public safety and education.

According to the program’s website, the organization followed two of its tagged sharks to the Mid-Atlantic: a mature white shark named Mary Lee, and an immature white shark named Cisco.

Mary was originally tagged in September 2012 in Cape Cod, and has pinged off the coast of Georgia, Delaware, and also Bermuda. According to the program’s website, she was named after Fischer’s mother.

“My parents have done so much. I was waiting and waiting for a special shark to name after her and this is truly the most historic and legendary fish I have ever been a part of and it set the tone for Cape Cod,“ said Fischer.

Norfolk is just one of many stops that OCEARCH is making.

This year’s expedition will focus on multiple species, including white, tiger, blue, mako and hammerhead sharks, and started on Friday in Norfolk with education and outreach events. Research started on Monday and will last until July 13.

The program held public ship tours on Friday and Sunday, and Fischer gave a speech about his “ocean first” approach at the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center.

There are 10 researchers on the expedition, as well as seven other scientists who analyze samples collected from the sharks.

The site also says that the M/V OCEARCH is both an at-sea lab and a mothership with a custom 75,000 lb. capacity hydraulic platform that lifts the sharks so the organization can research them, take samples, and tag them.

According to the program’s site, once sharks are caught and lifted onto the ship from a submerged platform, the sharks are restrained. Hoses of water are set to allow the flow of oxygen, then they are measured, their sexes are determined, and blood, muscle and other samples are collected.

To record shark movements, Smart Position or Temperature Transmitting Tags (SPOT tags) are attached to the shark’s dorsal fin. These tags send a signal, or ping, to the satellite overhead when the fin breaks the surface of the water.

“The transmission then sends back an estimated geo-location,” said the program’s site.

Tagging may cause the sharks temporary discomfort, but the program insists that there is no scientific evidence that it impacts their behavior or survival post-release.

The data collected allows the program to see shark movements in different parts of the world, their migration patterns and helps to uncover the areas in need of protection. Data is shared in an open source environment with collaborating institutions, and helps these institutions conduct studies that are published in peer-reviewed scientific journals and later used to assist in policy decisions.

OCEARCH has partnered with Costa Sunglasses, YETI Coolers, Southern Tide, SAFE Boats, Contender, Landry’s and Mustang to fund the Mid-Atlantic Expedition.

Shark lovers can go online to track the tagged sharks, or download the Global Shark Tracker App available for​ ​Apple​ and​ ​Android.

You can also connect with the program on Facebook​,​ ​Twitter, Instagram and​ YouTube​ for real-time expedition updates.