Ocean researchers trying to learn more about super deep water species often encounter complications. Take efforts to track the elusive bluntnose sixgill shark, a prehistoric beast that never surfaces. Scientists have dragged some up from the deeps in hopes of attaching a tracker, only to discover that the dramatic light, temperature, and pressure changes seemed traumatic (not good for the animal, or understanding its later behavior). The sharks have also been spotted from submarines, but those are only short observations.
Earlier this summer, an elite team of specially funded researchers decided to combine the best of both ideas. As chronicled on OceanX’s blog, they took a sub out to the Bahamas, dove deep, and eventually performed the first ever underwater tagging of a sixgill. The joint research team included scientists from Florida State University, the Florida Museum of Natural History, and Cape Eleuthera Institute and OceanX, the private marine initiative from Dalio Philanthropies.
The effort proves that it’s possible to study super-deep dwellers in noninvasive ways. That’s especially beneficial because the process can be repeated, perhaps even customized for smaller fish or giant squid. The ocean, which is 95% unexplored, still has many more secrets to share. It’s hard to explain exactly how magnificent the moment was in sheer words, though. So OceanX Media just released a 12-minute documentary about the mission, entitled Sharks in the Deep.
As you can see, the production values rival Shark Week. OceanX provided the sub, which launched from its massive research vessel, the Alucia. Spoiler alert: Once in the water, researchers discover that some of the sharks are big enough to literally push them around. Cut to the 8:45 minute mark to see how, once tagged by a specialized spear gun, one decides to barrel roll.
OceanX is part of a consortium of major funders including the Moore Bahamas Foundation and Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Vibrant Oceans Initiative that belong to One Big Wave, a multimillion-dollar effort to support oceanic explorations and protection.
“Our goal is always to bring as much attention as we can to the ocean and to the ongoing excitement of exploring it,” says Vincent Pieribone, the vice chairman of OceanX about the broader effort. Rather than focus on the doom-and-gloom scenarios that many conservationists face, they’re trying to be more aspirational. “That, we think, should lead viewers to the inevitable conclusion that the ocean needs our care, our maintenance, and our thought,” he says.
Those who like the film can expect a follow-up. The ocean dampens radio waves and GPS signals, so the tracker can’t immediately relay information. It will collect depth, positional, and temperature data for roughly three to four months before its seal to the animal degrades and it floats to the surface. At that point, researchers can analyze the trove and share updates.
The most dramatic part of the entire mission is that it actually failed many times before succeeding. Pieribone says that the researchers with the sixgill effort originally applied for funding from a governmental agency but were turned down. Two earlier expeditions also came up empty as they refined their process. Because the mission was philanthropy-backed, there was a different risk-to-reward calculation.
“We’re proud to be a group that pushes the envelope,” Pieribone says. “We did this twice; it didn’t work twice. You’ve got to stick to these things, and now we can [successfully] repeat it over and over again, which is a good thing.”