Big Fish, Dainty Meals: Observing Shark Behavior with the New England Basking Shark Project

Connect with others and learn about basking sharks with the New England Basking Shark project.

Want to learn about and protect sharks?  We’ve got you covered!

Basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) off the Atlantic coast
Basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus) off the Atlantic coast

With abundant jellyfish and other gelatinous critters, the New England area is always a trendy place for a basking shark to go for a meal after a long day travelling. This is in fact a popular restaurant, not just with sharks but with many other species as well. “The whales, the tuna, the sharks, everybody comes up here to eat”,  jokes Carol “Krill” Carson, President of the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance (NECWA), a non-profit organization based in Massachusetts.

As such a great opportunity to find a large number of basking sharks and ocean sunfish could not be missed, in 2005 Carson created a network of beachcombers and boat enthusiasts to spot these magnificent fish whenever they decided to come to the surface; and The New England Basking Shark (NEBShark) and Ocean Sunfish Project was born. “We see basking sharks and ocean sunfish in our whale watching trips and people get very excited, so I thought it would be really nice to have people involved in a community sighting network, where they could participate by reporting their sightings of these deep sea fish,” says Carson. “The more eyes you have looking, the better your chances of finding them.”

As the NECWA is not a research organization, the main purpose for this sighting network is to get people connected with the unique wildlife in the area. Secondary to that – like a cherry on top of the cake – is the opportunity to gather data to better understand these big fish and then use that knowledge to help protect them.

Nevertheless, this focus on public participation hasn’t stopped Carson from pursuing something rather unexpected that started happening in the fall and early winter. All of a sudden, they started receiving phone calls from concerned locals reporting stranded ocean sunfish on the beach. The first phone calls were met with a large dose of inexperience and ignorance about what was happening. As a whale biologist by trade, Carson wasn’t prepared to deal with these fishy problems. However, after a few years of trips to the library to brush up on fish biology and behavior, she now feels better equipped to answer these calls. “Over the years we’ve been responding to these reports, and now we actually have a better handle on what’s happening.”

It turns out what’s happening is very similar to what happens with sea turtles in the area. In theory, when the time comes to migrate, all they have to do is head south, for warmer waters. However, these fish sometimes stumble on a strange bit of land stretching 50 miles into the Atlantic Ocean: Cape Cod. If they get funneled into the arm of the Cape, they inevitably get stuck and their migration is over. Some are lucky and can be rescued in time, but for others it’s sometimes too late.

Basking shark identification and sighting card.
Basking shark identification and sighting card.

Upon sighting the stranded fish, Carson and her team carefully analyze the animals, including a detailed external and internal examination. “This is developing into something that I never imagined,” says Carson. “I’ve been contacted by researchers in Japan, in the Mediterranean, in England, all over the world, asking me to share samples. It’s really something incredible, because we really didn’t know what we were doing”. After a few necropsies (autopsies performed on animals) generating interesting results – “look, there’s a bladder, what other fish has a bladder?” – Carson believes they may be close to having enough data to publish a paper.

For the project participants however, it’s all about finding out that not all sharks are man-eating machines with ferocious teeth. The area is also characterized by a large population of great whites looking for food – mostly in the form of seals – but these animals tend to stay low in the water and are very rarely seen at the surface.  Only basking sharks like to “bask” in the warm sunshine and opt for travelling near the surface. “If you’re gonna see a big fish it’s typically those two fish [basking shark and ocean sunfish]. That behavior makes them very acceptable for a sighting network,” explains Carson.

The whale biologist turned shark expert continues, “When you tell people that a basking shark, which can be over 30 feet, comes here to eat something the size of a grain of rice, people can’t believe it. They come up here to eat jellyfish and people can’t believe that. Here’s something the size of your kitchen table coming up here to eat jellyfish.”

In this project every participant gets a personal call or email from Carson after reporting a sight. “I think it’s very important that you make that human connection with them to thank them for their information” says Carson, “and if you can talk to them you can get more information, things that they might not have thought about before.” This approach also creates an opportunity to emphasize the importance of taking a photo or video, even a bad one, to ensure the quality of the data collected.

The project will mark its 10th anniversary next year and it’s still going strong. “It’s so much fun. I’ve no clue what I’m doing, but I’m the only one doing it,” concludes Carson. So, if you happen to be in the area when these fish are around – typically spring, summer and fall – either simply walking on the beach or going on a whale watching trip, don’t forget to have your camera ready for a snapshot of a rather strange looking ocean sunfish with apparently no head or a basking shark with a mouth wide open.

New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance (NECWA)

Images: Wikimedia commons (top); Educational Materials, NEBShark (bottom)

Dr. Alex Reis is a freelance science writer, with a particular expertise in the field of biology and genetics. She holds a degree and MSc in Animal Science, topped up with a PhD in Embryology. In a ‘previous life’ as a researcher, she worked in the field of cell and molecular biosciences and published various scientific manuscripts including in Nature. Nowadays, however, she spends most of her time reading and writing science articles for several news outlets. Recent work includes articles published in The Munich Eye, Decoded Science, United Academics Magazine, BitesizeBio and Science NOW. After moving around the UK for a while, she now lives in the Highlands of Scotland. When not working, she can be found trying to get friendly with the ‘locals,’ from deer to seals, otters or even sea eagles.

Categories: Animals, Citizen Science, Nature & Outdoors, Ocean & Water