by Zackary Johnson -- March 5th, 2012
The ship’s course is adjusted to sample at the Shark Cafe to try to understand why white sharks congregate halfway between Hawaii and Baja California.
One of the great things about science is the exploration of the unknown and unexpected discoveries. Having a vision and plan to answer a question or understand a process is fine and often fruitful, and indeed our undergraduate, graduate and postdoc team is doing a great job of unraveling how climate change (and in particular temperature) affects the marine biota. But sometimes the most exciting findings are unique opportunities.
Today I was emailed by Barb Block, a Duke alumna, and professor at Stanford (yes, there is internet in the middle of the ocean, but it is not exactly broadband). She heard through another Duke Marine Lab faculty member (Joseph Bonaventura) that we were in the area (i.e. the Eastern Pacific Ocean) and wondered if we might be near 23.5N 132.5W, roughly halfway between Hawaii and Baja California. She has been working on tracking marine apex predators using satellite tracking technologies for some time and one of the more perplexing findings is that white sharks unexpectedly congregate near that location at certain times of the year.
They have termed this area the “Shark Café,” and that makes it sound quite exciting indeed! This particular area of the ocean is not too productive (i.e. there is not a lot of food being produced by the algae/phytoplankton in the ocean) so this congregation is surprising. Are there unique currents that bring the sharks there? Are there congregations of their food that come there for some reason? Are there other properties of the water itself that attract the sharks or congregate their prey? Is there a Starbucks there? No one knows. So, hearing this conundrum and having the potential to help answer it, we have altered our original path to San Diego and are heading straight to the center of the Shark Café.
Our team studies the algae and other microbes that dominate the biology in the open ocean and so our specialty is quite distant from the top predators. But all organisms are linked through the food web, and so we’re excited to see what connections there may be, what makes the Shark Café special, and to contribute to the broader goals of marine science. So stay tuned, and in the meantime, we’ll be holding on tight while we peer over the side trying to catch a glimpse of the ocean’s secrets.
Barb’s final words of advice as we head for the region: “No swim calls! These are large sharks.” Got it!