Dr Collin Drake doesn’t exist, but there are plenty of real shark biologists in the world. This week, I sat down with my friend Mark Royer, a Ph.D. Student at the University of Hawai’i who has perhaps the coolest job on Earth: he grapples with sharks for a living.
Mark is a part of the Shark Research Team from the Hawai’i Institute of Marine Biology, led by two of the most renowned shark biologists in the world: Carl Meyer and Kim Holland. The research group has been studying the sharks of Hawai’i for decades, and as a lab, have produced dozens of publications on shark biology, ecology, and physiology.
I can’t help but feel small in Mark’s presence—at over six feet tall, he towers over me. His loose-fitting t-shirt does nothing to hide the broad-shouldered body that lies beneath. With the musculature of a triathlete, Mark looks like he could take on just about any shark out there, save perhaps a large great white. And I know he has—as a part of his daily work, he has helped handle everything from baby hammerheads to large tiger sharks. But Mark’s intimidating stature, which among friends has earned him the moniker “Captain America”, belies the sweet young man that got to where he is now simply because he really loved the water.
“I have been swimming since I was four years old,” he told me. Mark was a competitive swimmer in high school, swam and did triathlons in college, and has always had a special place in his heart for marine life. “My grandparents would take me to the National Aquarium in Baltimore when I was young, and I was absolutely fascinated by all the animals. Not just the sharks, but all the reef fish, the stingrays, the dolphins, everything.”
“I was five years old when I first went snorkeling—right here in Hawai’i,” he said. “When I got to high school I earned the chance to volunteer at the National Aquarium in Baltimore as an exhibit guide. It fueled my passion for learning about marine life and sharing that knowledge with others. This solidified my childhood desire to be a marine biologist.” Though on the advice of his teachers he prepared for his intended career by taking as many science classes as he could, it wasn’t until Mark got to the University of North Carolina Wilmington that he realized how tough the job he was signing up for really is.
“When I was going into college I learned that marine biology was a field that required you to challenge yourself academically and demonstrate initiative outside of the classroom.” As I’ve explained before, it’s not all sunshine and frolicking in the ocean—science is hard, and studying charismatic animals like sharks or marine mammals is even harder. “It’s a very competitive field to get into,” Mark said. “You have to be a very dedicated student and a good, hard worker.”
But when you love something, you stick to it. The summer after Mark’s sophomore year of college, he managed to snag an internship at the Scripps Institution of Marine Biology helping then-graduate student Andy Nosal with his research on the ecology of leopard sharks. Mark learned a lot from Andy and his lab mates in the Jeff Graham lab, as the experience gave him a deeper understanding of the full scientific process. While interning with the Graham lab at Scripps, he conducted his own research project on the feeding ecology of leopard sharks jointly with the Lankford lab at UNCW for his senior project. “It was a very engaging experience. I would spend my free time swimming and free diving between the kelp forests and sand flats, making personal observations of the various sharks, rays and other marine life in the area for hours at a time.”
Mark’s current dissertation research is examining the interplay between physiology and ecology. Years of tracking data have shown that many sharks, from scalloped hammerheads to tiger sharks, make drastic vertical movements, down hundreds of meters into the ocean’s blackness. “I want to know if these species have any physical adaptations that allow them to do these deep dives,” Mark explained. How do these cold-blooded sharks survive and move in such freezing cold waters? And why do they make these incredible dives? Mark hopes to find out.
“We use a variety of different tags to answer different questions,” Mark explained. “Each method of tagging has its own advantages and disadvantages, so you can’t be too reliant on any one method of tagging.” The simplest tags are acoustics tags inserted into the shark which allow the team to keep track of fine scale movements near the team’s state-wide acoustic array. Satellite tags send data via radio waves, and thus only transmit data when the shark or the tag breaks the surface. Some of these tags are able to track salinity, temperature and light intensity, then pop off later to transmit the information, while others are attached to the shark’s dorsal fin and only record its position when the shark fins at the surface (the classic fin-breaking-through-the-water made famous by horror movies). Because of the logistics of satellite communication, these only really work to study large-scale movements. Then there are the tri-axial accelerometer data loggers. These nifty tags measure accelerations due to gravity along three axes much in the same way iPhones track their position, providing a high resolution, three-dimensional record of animal movements. Some are even fitted with cameras that record short videos at regular intervals to show scientists exactly what a shark was doing when it made a certain movement. For Mark, a combination of tags is key to answer the diverse set of questions he has about shark biology. (Learn more about the shark team’s variety of tags!)
But before Mark or anyone else from the lab at HIMB can tag sharks, they have to catch them. The shark research team uses longlines to snag these formidable predators, then pulls in the hooks one at a time. “Most of the time, we get skunked,” Mark explained. Lots of other species, from inverts to small fish, pick the bait off the hook before the sharks even get a chance to bite.
“To catch tiger sharks, we use tuna heads as bait that we get from the Honolulu fish auction for free,” said Mark. “We’re very grateful for that.” The heads are defrosted overnight, then in the morning, the scientists saw them in half using hand saws to create the hook baits. “Some of them are almost the size of my torso,” Mark explained. They usually chop enough heads to bait 40 to 60 hooks. “It’s not for people who are squeamish,” Mark said with a twinkle of amusement in his eye. “It’s not the best smell in the world, and by the time you’re done, everything is just caked in tuna brain and blood and mush.”
The heads are great for attracting sharks because they leach a lot of oil into the water, says Mark. Each half-head is added to a hook as the longline is payed out into the water. It’s gory work. “By the time you’re done, the people who have been handling the bait are just covered in tuna blood and juice—on their hands and on their boots and on their feet,” Mark explained. “It’s not a very glamorous job, and everything smells and looks disgusting.”
Then the team waits for three hours to see if the sharks will bite. When the time has passed, they haul the lines back in—sometimes by hand. “You’re pulling in this rope that has anchors attached, weights attached in the middle so it stays down, huge tuna heads on the hooks and sometimes large ten to fifteen foot tiger sharks.” Mark doesn’t seem to mind the strenuous labor. “It’s a good workout,” he said (“If you’re really hardcore, you sing sea shanties while doing it”). It’s considered a good day if they hook one to three sharks.
When they do have a shark on the line, the team jumps into action. “We bring the shark alongside of the boat, get a rope around its tail, and then tie the hook line off to the bow of the boat,” Mark said casually, as if that is the easiest thing in the world to do with a 15 foot tiger shark (the team, by the way, is only on a 17′ boat). “Once you get a rope around the tail and the hook line is secure,” he assured me, “the shark has limited wiggle room.”
Besides, the tiger sharks, though large, are relatively cumbersome, he says. Of course, you don’t have to be that agile when you’re that big. “They are extremely powerful,” he finally admitted, “You’ve got well over a thousand pounds of muscle thrashing around on the side of your boat.” The notorious tiger sharks aren’t the hardest to handle, however, Mark claims. “The coastal blacktip is a very feisty shark,” he admitted. “They thrash around a lot.”
Once the shark alongside, Mark or one of his colleagues turns the shark onto its back and holds it in place by its pectoral fins. This puts the shark into what scientists call “tonic immobility,” an almost trance-like state. “Granted, they’re not perfectly still all the time,” Mark told me, “but there’s a noticeable difference and it allows us to work with them.” The lab prefers to leave the sharks in the water because it’s better for the animals, and putting the animal into this state not only makes it easier for the scientists, it helps keep the shark relaxed throughout the process.
Just because the shark is calm doesn’t mean the team is out of danger. “I’ve been fortunate in that I haven’t had many injuries yet,” Mark said. It’s not just the sharks that make this work hazardous: “Equipment can be the scariest thing on the job.”
“You’re leaning over the gunwales of a boat and you’re holding onto this animal that weighs over a thousand pounds,” Mark explained. He got up and leaned over the table to demonstrate how the boat jabs into your body the entire time. “It’s a lot of really harsh pressure to your ribcage, and your arms are getting exhausted.”
“Sometimes your forearms are resting on the body of the animal, and tiger sharks have extremely rough skin—the rubbing has taken the skin right off.” He has pictures on Facebook to prove it. Mark also noted that lines and hooks have the potential to cause serious injuries if not handled properly, especially when unpredictable animals are hooked on them. “Safety is our top priority: first our own safety, and then the safety of the animals.”
But once the beast calmed and pinned, the scientists work quickly to take samples and attach tags. Acoustic tags are inserted into the animal’s body cavity, so a very minor surgery has to be performed. Other tags are attached externally. Once all the tags are in place, they let the shark go, and it swims away.
“Something I really like to do is get video footage of the whole tagging procedure from the water,” Mark added. “If we have enough people on the boat, I jump over the side, swim along the boat and the shark and take photographs and video.”
“It’s good to monitor the sharks after release to make sure they’re swimming well, and you also get some great footage.”
Mark has taken some stunning videos of the sharks caught by the HIMB research team. “Have you seen the prickly shark release video?” he asked me. I hadn’t. “We sometimes do tagging of deep sea sharks, species that live 700 feet or more below the surface.” They’ve caught a variety of species from these depths, but Mark was particularly excited when they hooked a prickly shark (Echinorhinus cookei). “Hardly any footage of it exists,” he explained.
His video is one of the few images of this animal ever taken:
Of course, he’s also jumped right in when tiger sharks were being tagged. I asked him if he was scared to be in the water when a large tiger shark is released, but he laughed at the idea. I have never seen a tiger shark while I was in the water, and I know my heart would race if I ever did—but for Mark, it’s just another day on the job.
When Mark’s not wrestling sharks, his life is still very ocean-oriented. “Almost all of my free time is spent in the ocean. I love to go surfing, snorkeling, scuba diving, free diving, spearfishing, or just swimming in the ocean.”
“One of the things that got my attention in college was the physiology of marine animals, how a lot of marine mammals are able to do deep breath-hold dives, how a lot of animals like the lamnid sharks are able to maintain body temperatures while doing steady swimming in deep cold waters. These are the kind of things that I think about when I’m doing my own endurance exercises, whether I’m going for a run or swimming in the ocean. I like to relate it to what other animals are doing when they’re going through the water.”
“Just recently I did the North Shore Challenge, the swim race for the North Shore swim series where we swim from Pipeline out to Waimea bay. It’s an absolutely stunning, beautiful swim where you get to see the marine life there—you see schools of unicorn fish, sea turtles—I saw an eagle ray as well. When I was swimming out there, I kept thinking, paying attention to what my body was doing, relating my physiology to what a marine animal has to do.”
“So you’re really a nerd,” I said, laughing. “Yeah, I guess so,” he replied smiling. “When people are in the water and thinking about sharks, I guess they’re probably not thinking about physiology.”
It’s hard not to be charmed by his simple passion for what he studies.
While I’ve been pretty hard on Discovery Channel for Shark Week this year, I hope that some good does come from specials like it. I hope that the annual festivities inspire more young Marks to pursue their passions. Mark has some words of advice for anyone who is thinking about following in his footsteps:
“There are a lot of people who want to be shark biologists,” he explained. As much as he loves sharks, he hopes that not every potential marine biologist heads into the field with one species in mind. “Don’t go into marine biology thinking you’re going to be manhandling sharks and playing with dolphins. The whole field of marine biology is as vast as the marine environment itself. Take the time to expand your horizon and explore the different processes and components of marine ecosystems.”
No matter what you end up studying, the advice is simple. “Take every opportunity you can to do work outside of the classroom, volunteer for labs, volunteer to help do field work, get yourself out there, get yourself scuba certified, make yourself a willing apprentice.”
“If you still want to do work with sharks or marine predators, work hard in school. The most important thing you can do is apply yourself.”
Mark’s right, of course. Being a marine biologist is incredibly rewarding. It’s exhilarating and fun, full of exciting experiences few have ever had. But the journey to get there is long and hard, and it’s not for everyone. You have to really commit yourself if it’s what you want to become.
You don’t have to be a marine biologist, though, to love and care for the ocean. The marine world is important to all of us. The oceans cover more than 70% of our planet, supply half of the world’s oxygen, feed hundreds of millions of people. Even the menacing sharks have their role to play—without them, delicate marine food webs unravel, and other species fall like dominos. Becoming a marine biologist, collecting the data needed to properly protect the marine realm, is one way of giving back, but it’s not the only one. Ultimately, we all must play a part in saving their watery depths and the staggering diversity of life within them. We can do this by making smart seafood choices, fighting for protected areas and reserves, and enjoying the water responsibly. For if we cannot protect the beautiful, vast, uninhabited expanses of ocean, what hope is there for the rest of our natural world?