Meet The Shark Trackers

Although the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week doesn’t roll around till July, this month is the height of the season at the White Shark Café, an unassuming little spot 1,000 miles out in the Pacific where great whites gather every spring. We asked Connor White, a research scientist in the department of conservation and research at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, to fill us in.

Dr. Salvador Jorgensen and Scot Anderson look for white sharks near the Farallon Islands as part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Project White Shark research and conservation program.

Where is the White Shark Café?

The White Shark Cafe is an area that is about halfway between Baja California and Hawaii. For a long time, researchers thought that white sharks were mainly coastal, feeding on marine mammals. However, once scientists started tagging sharks with satellite tags, they noticed that individuals would leave the coastline. After several tagged animals went to approximately the same area, scientists started calling it the cafe.

Charles "Chuck" Saltsman (left) looks on as Dr. Salvador Jorgensen (center) and Scot Anderson (right) high-five after a successful encounter with a great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) off the Farallon Islands during the 2011 fall tagging season. Genetic information and tracking data from tagged sharks help the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Project White Shark" conservation program uncover mysteries about the world's most maligned ocean predator.

When do the sharks go there? Do they all go, or just the more sociable?

The peak time for sharks to be out in the cafe is mid-April to mid-July. We really don’t know how many sharks there are in this population of white sharks, but it is likely over 2,000 individuals. Of those, we have only tagged a small sliver and most of these adult sharks travel to the cafe. Small juvenile sharks travel up and down the California oastline, largely spending their winters in Mexico.

Scot Anderson (left) reels in a seal-shaped decoy as Dr. Salvador Jorgensen and Charles "Chuck" Saltsman (center and right) watch for curious great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) during the 2011 fall tagging season off the Farallon Islands. Genetic information and tracking data from tagged sharks help the Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Project White Shark" conservation program uncover mysteries about the world's most maligned ocean predator.

Do we have any idea why they go to the cafe?

We really don’t know for sure. One idea is that sharks might be using this as a “meet and greet” location. Sharks from both California and Mexico go out into the Pacific, mate, and then return to the coast. However, it’s a large area—about 300 miles in diameter, according to the tagging data—and we really don’t know how sharks would find each other readily out there.

The other idea is that sharks might be using this area for feeding. The question then becomes what are they feeding on—it must be pretty good for individuals to travel so far to get there. However, other animals, like squid, and the sperm whales that eat them, are known to be in this area at about the same time.

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If you had one thing you wish you could convince people about great whites, what would it be?

I would say that the small baby sharks are just as interesting as the huge adults. The public and TV shows want to see footage of huge sharks, but sharks don’t start out huge. As babies—they are still pretty big, though, at 4-plus feet!—they have to find food and a suitable environment, all while avoiding other sharks that might eat them. We don’t know how these small sharks grow up and become adults, or even how long it takes for it to really happen.

Husbandry staff preparing to releases the fifth juvenile (third female) white shark, Carcharodon carcharias

If people really want to see a great white, what’s the best way to do that? Grab a boogie board, head to the beach, and hope for the best? Or stay safely at home and watch Shark Week?

The best way to see a shark is definitely to watch TV. The footage of sharks on many of the shows is pretty spectacular. To see sharks in person, people should come to the Monterey Bay Aquarium. While they won’t see a great white shark, there are many species of sharks and all have interesting characteristics. At the aquarium, we have leopard, six-gill, and hammerhead sharks, which are all just awesome to see.

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What are you working on right now?

I’m analyzing accelerometer data. Accelerometers are small sensors that analyze motion—they’re used in your cellphone, for instance, so when you turn your phone sideways the screen will rotate, and they are the heart of activity loggers like Fitbits. We use them to understand how sharks are behaving and, just like Fitbits for people, they help us see how active the sharks are and thus give us an idea of how many calories they’re burning.

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Photos Courtesy of Monterey Bay Aquarium and TOPP

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