MIAMI (CBS4) – Every year you seem them on the news, thousands of sharks off our coastline swimming just feet from the beach. In 2011 Florida had more shark attacks than any state in the country, or the world for that matter. The ranking of shark attack capital of the world will likely make you think twice about getting in the water. Surprisingly as sharks attacked swimmers, Florida was passing new laws to protect sharks. It’s seemed odd to ban fishing of what we know as man-eating animals. Are sharks dangerous or in danger? This is the first of a 6-part series of reports on our sharks. Filmed up and down our coastline over the past three months, we are taking you closer than we have ever been to the ocean’s top predator.
Our journey began in Pompano Beach. Nova professor Stephen Kajiura is prepping his plane. He shows us two high-definition cameras hanging out the window. “The nice thing about this system is it’s totally automated. So once I get going I can just turn the cameras on and just forget about it. Just concentrate on flying” Kajiura says. As we take off he quickly banks over towards the shoreline. The two high-definition cameras are turned on. “Go low and slow over the water, trying to get some good footage of the sharks.” he tells us.
Cruising just 500 feet off the ground near Boynton Beach inlet we see them. “There. There are thousands of them. Literally thousands of them, you guys came up on a good day,” we hear Kajiura say. Just below us are hundreds of black dots. Each dot represents a shark up to 20 feet long no more than 50 feet off shore. Kajiura is amazed every time he sees it. “It’s also interesting to see the people out on the water completely oblivious that there are sharks all around them, just a stone’s throw away.” he adds.
While Kajiura flies the entire shoreline of Palm Beach a single frame of film records 1500 sharks. Moving towards the county line the count skyrockets. By the end of his 47 mile flight more than 100,000 sharks can be counted off his footage all just feet from the sunbathers. I ask him “Why is it that they are coming so close?” “It may be there are lots of sharks further out but we just don’t see them because we are only flying close to shore here.” he responds.
These remarkable congregations began to be noticed about a decade ago off Florida. Biologists were perplexed. Where did they come from? “We didn’t know if they were staying here year round.” Biologist Dr. Steven Kessel told us. A number of biologists began experiments to track them and what they found was ground breaking. Sharks are snowbirds. “It’s very defined, almost to the day that they arrive and depart.” Kessel told us.
How biologists learned that involves frightening hands-on work with the sharks. Kessel invited us on one of his overnight jaunts off Jupiter to see it with a warning. “If you get really close to them they will bite you or the camera.” Apparently sharks are not only dangerous but quite smart. Kessel explained “Lemons will often bite their time and wait for you to put your hand where you shouldn’t put your hand.”
As the sun sets the team of biologists and volunteers set out their bait. It’s an intricate trap using bait, hooks and line to catch the oceans top predator. Within minutes they have their first catch. Kessel wraps one up with a rope around the tail. “It’s going to run I think now she’s going crazy.” He yells as he fights the shark over to the boat. It’s a lemon shark weighing 400 pounds. They pull her into the boat and Kessel makes a discovery “She might be pregnant. I think she’s pregnant.” They throw a cloth over her face so she can’t plot to bite anyone. They then offer the shark a paddle. They call it a pacifier. “Stick it in his mouth.” The shark clamps down and the team starts working the shark up, measuring and taking DNA samples. The process resembles a NASCAR pit stop. In and out in six minutes. They repeat it over and over into the early morning hours and each time it’s dramatic.
Some sharks fight hard biting anything around them including the boat. As the moon appears things get intense… the team makes a rare catch. It’s a great hammerhead. Kessel reaches for a transmitter. This shark, along with all the other sharks brought aboard, is given a tiny transmitter just beneath her skin. “Anywhere she swims she can be detected.” Kessel explains. The transmitter will track her movement like a GPS. “And it doesn’t feel any of this?” I ask “Well it’s not reacting.” he responds.
The hammerhead is sewn up and returned to the sea. Suddenly the shark turns around heading right for our underwater cameraman. In a panic our photographer actually surfaces flagging us to pick him up. Thankfully the shark’s curiosity fades and he cruises away. Kessel explains the danger is worth it. “Now we can study that shark for the next 10 years.”
They started inserting transmitters in 2007. Since then they have discovered sharks travel to Florida for warm winter weather starting in January and by the summer they are gone. They are tracked moving up and down the Eastern seaboard, in rare occasions even crossing the Atlantic to visit Europe. And boy can they move. Recently one left Jupiter going deep into the Florida Keys. That’s 323 miles in just five days, a trek that would take you two weeks walking 12 hours a day.
Lately, though, the tags have been showing a growing problem. When fisherman catch and kill these sharks they return the tags. Biologists say the returns coming from Tiger and Hammerhead sharks, like the one we caught off Jupiter, show they are disappearing at an alarming rate. It turns out that the massive congregation off our shoreline makes them easy prey for fishermen. “Any animal that aggregates is easy to exploit because you get a lot in a small area, so you can really hit them hard.” Kessel says. Concerned, this winter the State of Florida became the first state in the country to ban the fishing of tigers and hammerheads. “It’s a great step in the right direction but given the large-scale movements of these animals you need protection on a geographical scale that’s appropriate.” Kessel explained. “Unfortunately these rules only apply to state waters. And I believe the definition of state waters is how far you can fire a cannon ball back in the day.” That’s three miles, exactly where we caught the sharks off Jupiter. “Sharks don’t really care about cannon balls. They go where they like to go.” Kessel says.
There may be one place in Florida where all sharks are protected. It may have happened by accident in Cape Canaveral. Canaveral is home to the Kennedy Space Center, the space shuttle, and apparently quite a few sharks. NASA agreed to let us on the grounds as long as we didn’t reveal exact locations of sensitive areas. Near launch pads we saw thousands of sharks in the surf. One, a lemon shark, actually appeared to be surfing. “Often times you can’t see them until they are right between your legs basically.” NASA biologist Eric Reyier tells us. He calmly walks into the surf armed with a cast net. He quickly throws it out and catches a shark. As he drags the shark up, it clamps down on his net. “Ugh. He’s tearing a huge hole in my net. Holy cow kid!” he says in angst.
Reyier tells us the whole this is odd. “It’s unique. The Lemon shark has been studied for a long time and no one expected to find this.” The fascinating discovery was made nine years ago as Reyier drove along the beach. “It was a really cold day and we would see these waves crashing and you would see these dorsal fins popping. You could see 20, 30 sets of dorsal fins. We realized we had something special here.” Many speculate the sharks are here as a by-product of 60 years of federal protection of the space program. This sliver of beach, inaccessible to the public, you could call untouched Florida. No one can bother them here. As ask Reyier “Do you think the sharks know?” “I don’t know if they know or not.” “It’s sort of a hidden gem to be honest with you” he adds. We wonder if the sharks would be here if NASA wasn’t.” “If the space center and the air force were not here we would have condos. We would be standing in the shadow of condominiums right now.” Reyier tells us. “Do you think the sharks would be congregating the way they are?” I ask. “Ah I don’t think so.” he responds.
Almost all of them are juvenile lemon sharks. It almost appears that their parents, on their way south, dropped them off here knowing they would be safe. Reyier drags another one onto the beach. “These little guys are feisty.” This was the first time this phenomenon was being documented on television. Just like the sharks in Jupiter, NASA biologists are hoping tagging them will lead to new revelations about shark behavior.
Florida’s efforts to ban the fishing of Tiger and Hammerhead sharks is a first for the United States. But just fifty miles from here, in the Bahamas, they outright protect all sharks from fishing. Tuesday night we will take you there to see why. We get uncomfortably close in this report, which you can see on CBS4 News at 11, and again here online.