Great white shark biologists have a difficult time tracking down great white sharks. The gist of the thing is that great white sharks are rare creatures that inhabit a very, very large ocean.
The goal in research, then, is to get a white shark to find you. This generally involves chum (an ungodly mixture of blood and fish guts), horse legs and several million dead mackerel.
Assuming you have properly prepared all this stuff, you end up with a bloody, smelly, fish-gutty type boat deck, and then you sweep or ladle it all into the water and spend several sleepless days hoping by some random chance that a great white shark finds you. At which point you take a picture or two, slap a tag on it and then watch it swim away.
If only it were so easy to find shark biologists.
Like the fish they study, shark biologists are elusive creatures. They do not list their phone numbers in phone books. They change their e-mails frequently. And then, when you have finally tracked them down with the aid of advanced satellite technology, three months of pleading and the promise of frozen dead mackerel, they leave for another continent, pledging to call when they get back – which, it turns out, is a month later than they had planned.
A Busy Researcher
It’s about 8:30 Thursday night. Shark scientist Rocky Strong, a recent UCSB graduate, is checking his 88th phone message, on a long-distance call to India and in the middle of negotiations for a new shark cage, all during a 15-minute stop at his Santa Barbara home in between trips to Los Angeles.
“I hate Los Angeles,” he says, before explaining that he hasn’t slept since Wednesday. He got back from India on Sunday after two months there filming a National Geographic special, then left for San Diego and then for Los Angeles.
Strong is a scientist, filmmaker, producer, director, grant-writer, traveler and cage-builder, which keeps him busy. His last film, “Air Jaws,” is the most successful in the 14-year history of the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week and demonstrates the recently discovered breaching behavior of a group of white sharks off South Africa.
Audiences watching the film get to clap gleefully as adorable seals swim through the “Ring of Death” and get speared like cocktail wieners by leaping, acrobatic great white sharks.
Throughout the film, Strong provides insightful commentary, such as one scene, where we can only assume what is happening as the camera is trained on Rocky, who is saying, “Go little guy! Go!” He adds later that it’s “hard not to root for the seals.”
This is somewhat true. Fortunately, the audience at home doesn’t get a chance to get too intimate with the seals, since they get shown for about three seconds before a 2,500-pound mouth leaps out of the water and consumes them.
So “Air Jaws” is spectacular for its flying sharks. It is spectacular because it flies in the face of the notion that white sharks are lumbering, heavy animals, and redefines the entire study of great whites.
But it is also spectacular for Rocky’s stunt with a dead whale, which is probably the coolest thing ever produced on film. Sometime around the middle of the expedition, a dead Bryde’s whale washed up on the beach. South African authorities, not knowing exactly what to do with it, decided to toss it out by Seal Island, where Strong and company were busy filming great white sharks eating things. Sharks, impressive as they are at hunting things, will also scavenge.
For the sharks in False Bay, that dead whale looked pretty good. For Strong, the man who described the most dangerous part of a month-long white shark dive as the time he nearly got bit by a seal, a research opportunity presented itself.
After watching, the day before, as 27 great white sharks ripped off 40-lb. chunks of rotting meat with each bite, Strong decided to board the remains of the whale, which had been reduced to a rather small floating island, the next morning.
With the wry comment that “there’s not much left of this whale,” he climbed off his boat and, with a gaff in one hand and a camera in the other, climbed onto the whale. Crew members held shirts over their faces to try to cut the awful smell while Strong, hands on the camera, stood alone on his island of whale while some really big sharks made the island a lot smaller.
Discovering the Ganges
In April, Strong traveled to India as the associate producer for a National Geographic film on the Ganges River. He called it “one of the most humanitarian things I’ve ever done,” because he went to help people living there not get attacked.
India’s Ganges River is a holy site to Hindus. They bathe in the river. They also float their dead in the river, which attracts bull sharks, perhaps the most dangerous species of shark and one of the only ones to withstand fresh water for lengthy periods of time. Bull sharks swim up the Amazon and Nicaragua Rivers and will attack and even kill people bathing in the Ganges.
“All the evidence is pointing to the main culprit being bull sharks,” Strong said. “My main objective is to teach people what they can to do keep themselves safe so they don’t have to resort to eradicating bull sharks.”
The trip was a success in talking to shark attack victims. But Strong said there are far fewer sharks in the area than reports led him to believe.
“It was depressing the number of live sharks in the area – we expected to capture them – is very low,” Strong said.
Still, the evidence of attacks was there. Strong said he found people with missing legs and arms who had traveled five or six hours in rowboats or rickshaws to get to the nearest doctor, yet survived.
The quality of life around the river and the river delta is poor. And the health of the river isn’t that much better.
“The Ganges is a sewer. Literally,” Strong said. “I saw people taking dumps in the river. Every boat on the river has an outhouse on it.”
Hopefully, one of the research group’s discoveries will help protect the river. The discovery, quite an exciting one for researchers, was of an incredibly rare species of shark, the Ganges River shark.
The species is known only by two specimens, one in Calcutta and one in Paris. Both were collected well over 100 years ago by people who were collectors and taxonomists but not biologists.
“I think this fish has not been seen or identified by a scientists, absolutely placed by its location, in over 100 years,” Strong said. “It may be the only truly fresh and brackish water shark in the world, anywhere, ever. And that’s a pretty cool thing.”
It was cool enough that Strong stayed an extra month in India. Hopefully, it will be cool enough that people can be convinced to protect it – and, by extension, the river.
“Saving what’s left of this species may well save the river and people and everything else too,” Strong said.
On his return, he immediately left for Los Angeles to plan his next adventure. Hopefully, he said, it’s back to South Africa, and more white sharks.
For now, though, he’s driving between San Diego and Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, without staying too long anywhere.
His girlfriend, incidentally, is the same way. An intertidal snail researcher and master’s student at UCSB, she’s even harder to find than Rocky.
I called the MSI once asking for her. “Honestly,” said the guy at the end of the phone, “I haven’t seen her in three weeks” (she has, to be fair, been writing her thesis at home). Which is probably good, because it means she doesn’t have time to worry about Rocky, who’s off clowning around with 2,500-pound apex predators (Rocky on his girlfriend: “She’s cool. She knows I’m an idiot.”).
When they’re both in Santa Barbara, which seems like once or twice a month, Strong and his girlfriend, Christine McConnell, live in one of the most gorgeous houses on the planet.
It’s way back in the hills, situated perfectly, with the mountains parting perfectly for an ocean view from the deck, tall, thick oak trees with squirrels in them, huge windows and a cactus garden. The driveway is steep.
There’s a guest house where Strong keeps his shark gear – seal dummies (for dragging behind the boat), old shark cages, nets, fake surfboards (for dragging behind the boat) and a jumbled mass of other stuff. Outside is an old, beaten shark cage.
Strong notes that shark cages don’t really protect a diver from a shark, but act more as a visual deterrent. If the shark wanted to find its way in, it could. Because the cage is a cage, and not solid, smaller sharks can get in and injure the diver inside.
At the house, they have a mat for the dog, a Jack Russell Terrier named Ike. They have a feeder for him, which has a little shark head on top and when you push a button the mouth opens and you can pour the food out. It plays the theme music from “Jaws.”
The house is covered in shark stuff. There are carvings on the mantle, posters and paintings and tapestries on the walls and a pile of journals and papers on the table. I think I saw a set of jaws, but I can’t be sure.
“I get a lot of shark stuff,” Strong said.
Aside from filmmaking expeditions and random trips to L.A., Strong has no plans to leave Santa Barbara.
“I could do what I do other places,” he said. “I like it here and would like to stay here.”
The History of Rocky Strong
Strong graduated from UCSB with his Ph.D. in 2000. While here, he researched lemon shark behavior. He’s gone on dives off the Santa Barbara coast, and worked with the local shark species like horn, angel, swell, blue, mako and leopard sharks.
While the leopard sharks are common and visible, other sharks in the Santa Barbara area are harder to find.
“Finding sharks locally used to be really easy,” Strong said. “It’s less easy now, because fishing has been a wholesale war on sharks in this area.”
Blue sharks, which are record travelers, go from Santa Barbara to Hawaii, where they get caught by long-line fishermen. “Oceanic sharks have been hammered by guys operating mainly out of Hawaii,” Strong said. “Our sharks don’t come back. Blues from this area swim out to the mid Pacific, get taken by fishermen there, and don’t return.”
Surfers, fishermen, researchers, governments and the public at large debate worldwide shark populations, which are an incredibly difficult thing to nail down. Humans kill millions of sharks each year, for food, sport or medicine. Strong talked about the earlier days of shark research, where researchers would head out off the California coast with a few mackerel and find all the blue sharks they needed.
Now, it takes all day, hundreds of mackerel, and a little luck to find an adequate number of blues to study. Large sharks mature slowly and only give birth to a few young each year, making them particularly vulnerable to overfishing. According to most researchers, the world populations of larger sharks, like great whites, have decreased.
In 1992, Strong got his first opportunity to study white sharks in depth on a Cousteau Institute expedition to chronicle the decline in white shark numbers off Australia.
That trip ended with a plea for white shark conservation, which a few nations have taken up. White sharks are protected in South Africa, Australia and the United States. No matter the purpose of the research expedition though, it usually ends, like the India trip, with the researcher appealing to the documentary-watching public to save the sharks, no matter the kind.
From leopard sharks to lemon sharks to bull sharks, great whites and the monstrous, plankton-eating whale sharks, Strong studies and likes them all. He has no favorite.
“It depends on what I’m watching on a given day,” he said. “During my first encounters, I was staggered by white sharks, but really then, to swim with 30- to 40-foot whale shark is a religious experience.”
It’s an experience he tries to convey, through films, to the public at large.
“I spend a lot of time thinking about the state of humanity and our course throughout history and where we’re headed. And we don’t seem to be too, too concerned with a lot of important sociopolitical and biological trends,” Strong said. “Coming up here through L.A. tonight … God almighty. The city is failing. … I think about it constantly, when I get the chance to vote on something having to do with this, I do. My vote is always for people to be responsible members of the human race and stewards of the planet and each do our share to straighten out the destructive trends we’ve inherited. The main problems are fixable, but time is running out.”