Scientists Track Shark Behavior in Palmyra Atoll Lagoons surrounding the atoll in the Pacific Ocean are teeming with sharks, which thrive in the food-rich environment. Scientists track the sharks to learn how they are being affected by climate change.

Scientists Track Shark Behavior in Palmyra Atoll

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.


I'm Madeleine Brand. More now from Climate Connections, our series with National Geographic.

CHADWICK: Madeleine, listen to this...

(Soundbite of animal)

BRAND: This is Palmyra; this is the place you told us about yesterday, the tiny tropical atoll way, way, way out in the Pacific Ocean. And you know, Alex, it's just another workaday for you.

CHADWICK: Well, go where the scientists go and that's what we will do for the next couple of days; follow some of them gathering data on this atoll that really is a good site to study climate change. And so we come to a workbench outside a small lab building.

(Soundbite of carpentry work)

CHADWICK: And there, there's a researcher now, Alan Friedlander, filing away at a large fishhook.

Doctor ALAN FRIEDLANDER (National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration): Right now I'm taking the barbs off of the hooks that we're using to catch sharks and jacks.

CHADWICK: Because Alan is going to release those big, sometimes dangerous fish after they're caught. So make the hook come out easy and don't think about reaching into shark mouth to untangle things.

You snip off the point of the barb with some wire cutters.

Dr. FRIEDLANDER: That's right. So we try to get off the point as much as possible. Keep clear...

(Soundbite of wire cutter)

Dr. FRIEDLANDER: And then...

CHADWICK: Alan is a zoologist from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA. He doesn't look academic, though; he's more like Robert Shaw playing the grizzled Quint in "Jaws," and that's good. We're going shark hunting - as soon as the gear works.

Inside the lab is a professor at California State University, Long Beach: Chris Lowe.

Doctor CHRISTOPHER LOWE (California State University, Long Beach): I'm programming an acoustic receiver for a tag that will detect temperature and depth of the water when it's in the shark.

CHADWICK: And that is it. Get a tag inside a shark, then use it to detect ocean temperature.

(Soundbite of boat)

CHADWICK: Four scientists, a couple of radio people, a video guy, two small tippy boats with outboards and a bucket of gloppy something.

Jen, what is that?

Ms. JENNIFER CASSELE (University of California, Santa Barbara): This is squid. We're going to use it for bait.

CHADWICK: Jen. That's Jennifer Cassele. She's a shark tagger from UC Santa Barbara. We motor out on the lagoon, where 12-foot tiger sharks prowl in the night. But this is day. We're after something much more modest. Chris Lowe scans calm surface of the water.

Dr. LOWE: So the plan is Alan can start fishing and then in a couple of minutes he'll start screaming like a girl, running around...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. CASSELE: Actually, seriously, Alex, when he hooks up or any of us hook up, you'll want to run opposite to us and avoid the lines that are going to be running around the boat.

CHADWICK: You mean the shark is going to be circling the boat?

Ms. CASSELE: Shark's going to be circling, and we're on the other end of the shark, so we're going to be circling around this very small boat.

CHADWICK: Here comes one. Here comes one right for you, Jen.

A dark form moving fast near the surface. Jen casts the line where the shark will be.

Mr. YANNIS PAPASTAMATIOU (Doctoral Student): You got him. You got him.

Dr. LOWE: Nice work, Yannis.

CHADWICK: Yannis, the fourth member of the team. He's a doctoral student from the University of Hawaii: Yannis Papastamatiou.

Yannis works the shark to the side of one boat. He slips a rope around the tailfin. Now the creature is tethered at both ends. The shark is not so big, four feet maybe, but it is a shark, a female, and she is not happy.

Dr. LOWE: Hold on, hold on.

CHADWICK: So here's what you do for data today: roll that shark very, very carefully so she's fell again. This produces a kind of a shark trance, and that is good. We prefer that she not notice Yannis is now holding a scalpel.

Mr. PAPASTAMATIOU: I'm making a small incision in the wall of the abdomen so we can get into the body cavity so we can insert the transmitter.

CHADWICK: He shifts position to crouch near the shark and a gunnel dips low to the water; his hands move quickly.

How deep are you going with that?

Mr. PAPASTAMATIOU: Oh, just about a centimeter.

CHADWICK: The instrument is no bigger than a throwaway lighter, but it can track the shark's location, read pressure to signal depth and gather temperature readings.

Mr. PAPASTAMATIOU: Transmitter is in. Sutures.

CHADWICK: With a single stitch, Yannis seals the small wound; a quick test, the transmitter is working, and now...

(Soundbite of transmitter)

Dr. LOWE: It's that ready?

Mr. PAPASTAMATIOU: Yup. Let's go.

Dr. FRIEDLANDER: Send her on her merry way.

CHADWICK: She settles in the water for an instant, shark lines blurring back to shark shape beneath the surface. Then she's gone.

Mr. PAPASTAMATIOU: We've got a water check, you have 31.4 degrees C and a depth at 0 meters.

CHADWICK: Sharks are so overfished in so many places, it's difficult to get data on how they are responding to changes in climate.

Mr. PAPASTAMATIOU: But here you have this pristine an area as you can find, so despite the fact that climate change may be occurring as a result of humans, we're still able to get an idea of how these animals are responding based on, you know, what are going to be probably more rapid changes in climate.

CHADWICK: Chris Lowe, along with Alan Friedlander, Yannis Papastamatiou and Jennifer Cassele, at work this summer on the lagoon of Palmyra Atoll in the central Pacific.

Dr. FRIEDLANDER: All right. Yannis, good job. Nice surgery. Where's your watch?

CHADWICK: But by now they are back indoors at computers with the data that they and others will be able to use for decades, measuring how the ocean and the sharks were before it gets any warmer.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Ooh, Alex, that sounds kind of spooky.

CHADWICK: It is. But you know, these shark people, they were so fun to hang out with, and they really, really do love their work.

BRAND: Plus, you got some video of the whole thing. It's pretty amazing.

CHADWICK: You see them actually catching this shark, yeah.

BRAND: And you?

CHADWICK: There are a couple shots of me all, at our Web site. Lots of other information and pictures too.

BRAND: Go to

CHADWICK: And here's an easy way to find it. Just search for Palmyra.


CHADWICK: ...Y-R-A. And tomorrow on the program, birth hunting in the dark, in the rain, for boobies.

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