High hopes & adventure for sharks of the Northern Red Sea
by Dr Lucy Hawkes
Dr Lucy Hawkes is a Senior Lecturer in Physiological Ecology at Exeter University. Her work is specifically focused on tagging large animals so their movements can be studied and their habitats protected.
Shark! Shark! I need to get in, where’s my tank?! Pass my fins, quick quick!!
This is not the normal set of events that follow a shark sighting, but I’ve been moored off a seamount in the northern Red Sea on a dive boat for the last four hours, pouring in bonito blood and guts, hoping for a shark to turn up so that I can put a tracking tag in it. I’m a marine biologist and use tracking tags to follow animals to work out where they live so I can design protected areas for them. As I descend from the surface, my team laugh and throw chunks of fish and guts at my head. I seriously considered slashing fish and tucking them in my weight belt. You see, we’ve been in the Red Sea for several weeks now and sightings of sharks, of any size or species, have been really thin on the ground.
As we descend, about five silvertip sharks surround me and my dive buddy, circling us closer and closer as we drift through featureless blue water at about 10 metres depth. To many people this might sound like a nightmare, but in my head I’m honestly thinking: “A bit closer, come a bit closer!” – I have a two-metre darting pole on which my high-tech satellite tag is mounted and the sharks aren’t quite close enough for me to get a tag on them properly. I’m not scared. Not because sharks aren’t fantastic predators, or because I’m stupid, but because I know how much more dangerous I am, as a human. More than a quarter of all shark species are threatened with extinction and shark fishing is essentially unregulated globally. A recent study revealed that as many as 20% of coral reefs across the world have lost the sharks that should be living on them – essential top predators that help to keep the rest of the reef community in check. It’s not an exaggeration to say that some of the shark species in our seas today won’t be around for our grand children to see, so I am swimming with them while I can.
I’m here as the Team lead for marine megafauna (a scientific name for sharks, stingrays, turtles, dolphins and whales) onboard the OceanXplorer, a state-of-the-art research vessel that’s on its maiden voyage to explore the undersea world of the northern Red Sea. I have never been on a vessel like this before. Actually, no-one has. It’s an unprecedented floating science and media platform, with two Triton submersibles, an ROV rated to 6,000 metres, a helicopter that snuggles into its own little garage while we’re not using it, and a Dive Centre fitted out with the latest Fourth Element dive gear. There’s a whole set of incredible media gear and RED cameras, which link to a dedicated media suite to produce documentaries even at sea.
I was one of four senior scientists on board a crew of 27 scientists looking to explore everything from deep sea black corals, to brine pools and reef bleaching. We can (and we did) use all these amazing tools to look for sharks, turtles and dolphins from the sky to depths of 1,800 m. We discovered a small part of the coastline that hosted large numbers of sea turtles, and circled in the helicopter over schools of Risso’s and spinner dolphins. But we hardly saw any sharks the whole six weeks that we were there. One of the important outcomes of the mission is to designate areas of the coastline to protect – and we hope that a new wave of interest in the rich marine life of the Red Sea will help to create safe sanctuaries where sharks might be able to catch a break and recover their populations. I am cautiously optimistic.
As a female scientist, this has been a fascinating opportunity – working in a part of the world where gender equality is still challenging, and in shark science, one of the most male-dominated parts of marine biology. An opportunity like this, not just to do some amazing science, but to share the results with the world on OceanX’s incredible social media platform is a gift. Regardless of the fact that it’s me on the screen, I hope that a little girl somewhere sees a female scientist doing cool things, and realises she too can be a scientist someday if she wants to. Representation is so important in science now, and we need a diverse set of minds, skills and opinions to solve the world’s biggest issues.
The mission took place in October and November 2020. In case any readers are wondering, the whole crew was quarantined in Egypt prior to boarding the vessel only once three sequential negative COVID tests had been passed, and daily COVID health checks took place throughout the cruise.
Lucy has both legs, arms and all her fingers, even after that dive.