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Researchers are tracking sharks to keep beachgoers safer

An expedition off Nantucket, Massachusetts, aims to better understand shark behavior and reduce fears of the ocean’s top predator.
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NANTUCKET, Mass.— Settling in for a relaxing beach day, tourists visiting Nantucket’s Surfside Beach are blissfully unaware of the fishing expedition taking place five miles off the coast, where researchers aboard the OCEARCH are hoping for white sharks.

While the ocean’s apex predator has been stoking fear in beachgoers’ hearts since "Jaws" first surfaced in movie theaters in 1975, what researchers learn on this expedition is designed, in part, to make splashing in the ocean even safer.

“They wanna know: are the people where the sharks are?,” said Chris Fischer, OCEARCH’s founder. “Locally here at Nantucket, we're trying to create a program where we give that community the maximum amount of data for its sharks for their own public safety management so they can be prepared if they have an incident.”

Researchers Dr. Giselle Montano of Sea World, front, and Dr. Zoe Pratte of Georgia Tech, rear, analyze samples in a lab aboard the OCEARCH.Sam Winslade / NBC News

Since 2007, OCEARCH, a private research organization, has been tagging and tracking white sharks around the world. To date, they’ve conducted 35 expeditions and in 2012 began studying white sharks in the northwest Atlantic. As part of that study, they’ve placed satellite tags on 44 sharks, making it possible for anyone to follow their movements on the organization’s website.

After a deadly shark attack in nearby Wellfleet last summer, OCEARCH’s work caught the eye of leaders on Nantucket who wondered how they might keep swimmers safer.

“If we can see what the sharks are doing and how they're behaving, we can absolutely start to understand when there are high impact times — what beaches are maybe more dangerous,” said Alan Worden, a Nantucket resident and founder of Community Data Platforms.

As a tourist destination, Nantucket’s population is always in flux as are the movements of its visitors. In 2016, Worden and a group of concerned locals began a project to collect and analyze data about how people use the island. How do people get there, when do they arrive, where do they go and how much trash do they produce are just some of the questions they set out to answer.

OCEARCH founder Chris Fischer talks to the crew aboard a smaller fishing vessel named The Contender during the group's recent expedition off the coast of Nantucket.Sam Winslade / NBC News

Through their work, they now know with certainty which beaches are most popular and when. They’ll take that data on human movements on land and map it with OCEARCH’s information on sharks’ movements at sea.

“We can layer all this data, then we can make a better decision on where to put our resources,” said Jason Bridges, a member of Nantucket’s select board and a business owner. “Increase our services, lower the cost, and make better public safety decisions.”

Examples of those decisions could include moving ambulances closer to certain beaches when there is heavy traffic on the island to increase response time in the unlikely event of a bite.

The expedition could also help doctors better treat shark bites should they occur. Aboard the OCEARCH are 29 researchers from a multitude of institutions conducting 17 different research studies.

Perhaps the most unnerving is the work of Zoe Pratte, a postdoctoral fellow at Georgia Tech who is trying to sample the bacteria on the sharks’ teeth and tongue. While the information will help scientists understand what kind of microbial threats sharks face, it can also help humans.

“If somebody gets bit by a shark, the doctors are gonna have specific information regarding which bacteria are there and how to treat them,” Pratte said.

Researchers tag a white shack they named 'ACK', which is Nantucket's airport code, five miles off the island's coast.Robert Snow / OCEARCH

In spite of their presence in popular culture, science knows relatively little about white sharks. Among the biggest unknowns are where they mate, give birth or exactly how long their gestation period is. Crucial to the health of the ocean, Dr. Giselle Montano of Sea World is performing on-board ultrasounds to try to better understand the reproductive health of sharks.

“When you know if an animal is seasonal, where they are breeding, where they are mating, where the pups are being born, then you can make much better and wiser decisions about their protections,” Montano said.

Fischer hopes in time the knowledge they gain at sea will help people fear sharks less and turn their efforts to protecting the predator. He points out the likelihood of a deadly shark encounter is incredibly rare.

“Twenty people die a year taking selfies, six from sharks,” he said with a bit of a chuckle.