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Pair tag Tiger Sharks for fun

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It’s easy to imagine how obituaries for veterinarian Neil Burnie and marine biologist Choy Aming might read, when you hear what they do in their spare time.

Their hobbies include ocean swims with some of the world’s most aggressive shark species without a cage. After five years, they’ve yet to suffer a single nibble.

Their obituaries would probably go something like:

Dr Burnie cared for countless pets at Endsmeet Animal Hospital and at times serenaded The Royal Gazette office with his saxophone or harmonica. Mr Aming studied at the University of Victoria, and worked on various wildlife projects in Africa and Asia and Bermuda.

They’ve made films about their work ‘A Tiger’s Tale’ and ‘My Backyard’ and will give a lecture on their ground-breaking shark research at the Bermuda College on Wednesday as part of Corange Science Week.

“We have been recently focused on tiger sharks but we have expanded to include the local Bermuda dusky or Galapagos shark,” said Dr Burnie. “The tiger shark has been the mainstay of what we have been doing over the last five years.”

Working in association with research institutions such as the University of Rhode Island, the Nova Southeastern University in Florida, and the Guy Harvey Research Institute, their project involves tagging the pectoral fins of tiger sharks and tracking them through satellite transmission. The tags can cost upwards of $6,000 each to purchase and maintain; they have managed with assistance from sponsors. The poster shark for the project is Harry Lindo, named for the founder of the Lindo’s chain of grocery stores, one of their sponsors.

In 39 months of tracking, Harry has swum over 27,000km at an average speed of 23.5km a day. “This shark is a special favourite,” said Dr Burnie. “Almost three years to the day after the satellite tag was applied to his dorsal [fin] he turned up on the eastern side of Challenger Bank and appeared on a video posted online. The video catches Harry Lindo eating another 7ft, 150lb, tiger shark. Harry is about 9ft long now not counting the tail.”

Said Mr Aming: “His head was big enough that he could, in one bite, bite as far as the other shark’s pectorals [front fins].”

The tags only transmit when the shark surfaces. They send a quick text message to researchers. Mr Aming and Dr Burnie have learned that the females tend to surface more often than the males. One of their males might only surface once in four months, for example, although the odd male has been known to surface four times in a day.

Leanna, a tagged tiger shark just under 6ft, offers a look at a female shark’s daily life. While Harry and other males have been known to make enormous circuits down to the Caribbean and back to Bermuda, Leanna is more of a homebody. In an average week she might surface on Challenger Bank, Argus Bank, then Challenger Bank again and then on Sally Tucker Bank.

Mr Aming and Dr Burnie met a few years ago while kite boarding and windsurfing at Somerset Long Bay.

“We started talking,” said Mr Aming. “He had just finished building a shark cage. He was inspired to do this after seeing a lot of sharks while out fishing. I had seen whales during my work. We put two and two together.”

The shark cage they once used has since been donated to the Bermuda, Aquarium, Museum and Zoo to be used by people who want to observe sharks, but are more nervous about their safety than Dr Burnie and Mr Aming. It might also be used on night dives.

The tiger shark is often listed as the second most aggressive shark after the great white shark. Dr Burnie said it was a misconception that they will just eat anything they see.

“Jim Abernethy, who runs Scuba Adventures, a dive operation in the Bahamas, has multi-year experience of free swimming with tiger sharks,” he said. “He has said that tiger sharks like to eat things that fall under the ‘three Ds: dead, dying or dumb’. If you hang out on a surf board in an area of poor visibility and you don’t pay attention to what is going on underneath the water, you are behaving in a dumb manner. If you are in the water and focused entirely on something in front of you, instead of being aware that there is a 360 degree perimeter around you, then you are behaving in a manner that, any other fish would consider to be dumb.

“You have to play by the same rules. If you are aware of the tiger sharks and they know you are aware of them, you have a better chance of spending time in the water with them without them treating you like a food item they do come up to us to investigate to see if we fit into any of those categories.”

Mr Aming said moving towards a shark rather than away from it, could sometimes surprise a shark as they are used to everything in the ocean running away.

“They find it a bit freaky,” said Mr Aming. “They also don’t like the bubbles from the snorkel or diving gear. You rarely hear of divers being attacked by sharks. It’s because they are usually aware of the shark and watching what is going on.”

Dr Burnie said when you hear of swimmers or surfers being attacked by sharks, the shark has usually been circling for about three minutes, trying to decide if this is a good place to stop for a bite to eat. Because the surfer or swimmer has their head above water and is not paying attention to what goes on below, the shark decides to chomp.

“Most of what we are aiming to achieve during our lecture at Corange Science Week is increased public awareness of the shark as a beautiful, powerful animal worthy of respect,” said Dr Burnie.

Mr Aming said familiarity was necessary to alleviate some of the fear. He said unfortunately a lot of nature programmes only highlight sharks being aggressive or dramatic to gain greater viewership, and give a false sense of what sharks are normally like.

“I have been in the water [and done] over hundreds of dives in a dozen different countries with dozens of species of sharks and never had any serious issues with any of them,” he said. “We could spend six weeks filming, and only two of those days would you see the sharks involved in a dramatic bloodbath.”

As a predator at the top of the food chain, sharks are also important to maintaining the balance of nature in the ocean.

“You take away that apex predator and everything goes haywire,” said Dr Burnie.

The aim of Corange Science Week is to highlight pure and applied sciences. Organisers hope that it might inspire more middle and high school students to consider science as a career choice. There are a number of events going on at the Bermuda College between now and Friday. Check out the Bermuda Calendar in this newspaper for more details.

The pair will deliver their shark lecture on Wednesday from 6.30pm to 8pm in the North Hall Lecture Theatre at Bermuda College. The event is free and open to the public.

Track Harry Lindo and other sharks in the project at: www.nova.edu/ocean/ghri/tiger-sharks/index.html or see visit Bermuda Shark Project on Facebook.

Useful website: www.bercol.bm/newsEvents

Marine biologist Choy Aming.
A shark takes the bait.
Sharks approach the shark cage built by Choy Aming and Dr Neil Burnie. The two have now stopped using the cage as they feel it was a hindrance.
Choy Aming poses with a shark.
Veterinarian Dr Neil Burnie playing the harmonica during a lull in shark chasing.

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Published January 28, 2013 at 8:00 am (Updated January 27, 2013 at 4:25 pm)

Pair tag Tiger Sharks for fun

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