Sea differently: the shark project sparking a love of science

5 min
A woman in a blue t-shirt and black cap holds a small grey shark down onto the white surface of a boat, as several people observe from seated and standing positions around them both. One holds a white pipe, which drizzles water over the shark.

“We're talking about between 400 and 450 million years that they've been on the planet. And for a little context, that's older than trees…”

Sharks are older than trees. Even reading no further than this, then we’ve still all probably learnt something today. But a day in the life of Professor Catherine Macdonald is so fascinating, you’ll probably want to stick around. As an assistant research professor and director of the Shark Research and Conservation Program (SCR) at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School for Marine, Atmospheric, and Earth Science, she regularly brings young aspiring scientists face to face (or should we say ‘face to snout?’) with dozens of species of sharks.

Only last month, Catherine and her all-female crew from SCR were joined by twelve students and a team from Canon U.S.A., including University of Miami Rosenstiel School undergraduate student photographer and Canon Fellow, Hannah Heath, as they caught and released six sharks in Miami’s Biscayne Bay. But this is business as usual for the crew, who regularly invite young women and girls to take part in important initiative called FINS (Females in Natural Sciences), where these students don’t sit back and watch – during their day on the boat they are hands-on with every shark they catch.

It's the most incredible mentorship opportunity, as – despite being only 10 to 17 years old – they are able to assist the crew as they fish live sharks from the sea for examination and tagging. “They help us to keep the shark wet during the workup, take essential measurements, snip small tissue samples from the fin and tag the sharks,” explains Catherine. The whole process is extraordinarily fast and Catherine has been known to compare it to a pitstop in a Formula One race. It’s certainly easy to see the parallels. Five to seven minutes is the usual time it takes to land the shark out of the water, lay it out on the stern’s examination platform and undertake all the necessary data collection.

A group of graduate students from the Shark Research and Conservation Program hold the body of a small black fin shark onto the white work-up platform of the boat.  One holds the head and two further on the body and tail. The shark also has a tape measure running from snout to tail. A FINS participant fans a tube that dispenses seawater over the head and body of the shark during the entire work-up process.

The FINS program (with support from Canon Solutions America) gives middle and high school girls from underserved communities in Miami an exciting hands-on experience with mentorship provided by female University of Miami Rosenstiel School faculty and graduate students. It demonstrates the importance of environmental responsibility and supporting women in the field of marine science.

Catherine’s team work in perfect harmony and teach the students how to position the shark and pump sea water over it, keeping it calm and relatively comfortable. Together they then check the shark for parasites, take blood and tissue samples and conduct ultrasound scans on female sharks of not one, but two uteruses (sharks have two – which is an excellent fact to have at hand by anyone’s standards). Finally, the shark is tagged and released back into the sea. To say it’s a high energy process would be an understatement, particularly in the case of a 200lb nurse shark, against which Catherine demonstrated expert handling technique while it was being examined. It’s important to note that these minimally invasive samples are not harmful to the shark and are vitally important to furthering our understanding of their biology and ecology. And the speed at which the SCR team work is deliberate, to keep any kind of distress at the bare minimum.

There is always a team member documenting the whole procedure using a Canon EOS R5 C camera, which means they can switch between stills and video as required. Canon USA’s support of University of Miami Rosenstiel School is important because documentation is not only necessary in spreading the word about their work, but to their research. “We have studies right now that look at what we call ‘animal functional morphology’. So, what is the shape and structure of an animal’s body? And what can that tell us about how they function in the environment?” explains Catherine. “A picture of a hammerhead’s head shape, to parasite lesions on a black tip’s back or photographs of mating wounds, can help us to better understand shark health, reproduction, habitat use and function.”

Professor Catherine Macdonald sits cross-legged on the deck of a boat in front of seated students who smile at her as she talks to them.

“I absolutely love when they get their chance to shine,” says Catherine. “You're not a good mentor if you're drawing all the light to yourself.”

For the students, it’s truly awe-inspiring to be part of this kind of field work. Not only is it obviously extremely cool to be up close and personal with sharks, but these young women and girls have received enough training that they can actually perform important tasks to collect data that directly contributes to current University of Miami research. This is the kind of thrill that matters, as it’s precisely the goal of FINS to show the next generation of female scientists that this work is something they are capable of, and it is a calling and a profession where they absolutely belong.  

And Catherine understands completely how they might feel when exploring a career in science. “My field has made a lot of strides in being more inclusive to women and people of colour, making more space for them. Although, overwhelmingly, the senior people in my field are far less diverse than my current team of graduate students” she says. “And so, while I can't make sure that every student never encounters barriers, I do want to play a role in helping to make the field of marine science safe and welcoming for all.”

Over twenty crew and youngsters stand at the rear of a boat as it speeds through the water. They are all smiling and holding their hands up, fingers splayed and both thumbs touching.

“If you ask students, especially at higher levels – graduate students in biology and ecology – what drove them to choose the subjects that they want to study, for many of them, it's experiences of fieldwork,” says Catherine.

As the saying goes, “You can’t be what you can’t see”, but the FINS programme goes one step further, giving experienced female scientists the opportunity to show the next generation, first hand, just what they are capable of. There is no sugar coating or endless inspirational speeches – just the reality of working as a marine scientist. Expecting the unexpected, some days needing great patience (“we tell the high school students is it's called fishing not catching for a reason,” smiles Catherine), and others working non-stop as one shark after another appears at the boat.

But one thing is for certain, Catherine and her team are all about changing perceptions – both around who can work with sharks and the sharks themselves. “There are more than 530 species of sharks on the planet,” she points out. “And the vast majority of them are not very big. They don't really meet that vision of what a shark looks like, including recognising their vulnerability. So, part of it for us is giving people a chance to see sharks in a different way.”