Jordan: Of all the great white sharks on Twitter, Brunswick is my favorite, mostly because we share a love of shark dad jokes. I’m getting hungry, he tweeted back on April 9th on the lookout for a good fish or ray. All I’ve seen is a seal with a broken flipper, and you know what they say, do not eat if seal is broken. See, shark dad jokes! Brunswick’s tweets aside, he is a real shark, an eight foot nine great white who was tagged, and released, and introduced to Twitter in February of this year by an organization named O Search. O Search has a unique approach to conservation and advocacy, one that has a tendency to divide both the scientific community, and the regular communities where they do their work, including on Canada’s East Coast. What is different about, O search beyond the Twitter accounts? Almost everything. Do they generate awareness? Absolutely. Is their approach working to help save more species, raise more money, and learn more about the creatures we’re putting at risk? That depends on who you ask. But when you launch with a reality show and end up as a “data centric organization built to help scientists collect previously unattainable data in the ocean”, you are bound to raise a few scientific eyebrows along the way.
Jordan: I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, and this is The Big Story. Chelsea Murray is a writer for many publications, including The Walrus. She is also co founder of the Deep magazine. Hey, Chelsea.
Jordan: Can you start today by telling us who is Hilton?
Chelsea: Sure, yeah, Hilton is a male white shark who was tagged off the coast of Hilton Head. He’s named after Hilton Head in South Carolina in 2017 and he’s got a Twitter account, I guess, so people in Nova Scotia and really across North America have been kind of following him as he travels up and down the Eastern seaboard of North America.
Jordan: What’s he like on Twitter?
Chelsea: Well, he’s a little playful. He likes to talk about his other friend, white sharks, who also have tags on them, and people are tracking on Twitter. Gives shout outs to people. I guess when he’s been in Nova Scotia, people are really excited to see where he is, and know what he’s doing. So he’ll, like, kind of give shout outs to people who are tweeting at him as well, and people really tweet it as if he’s actually like holding a cell phone. Which is kinda cute.
Jordan: How do we know about him and where does the account come from? Who manages it? Where does the data from? That kind of stuff.
Chelsea: So he was tagged. Hilton was tagged like I mentioned off of Hilton Head, South Carolina, by a resource organization called O Search, which is a portmanteau of ocean and research. They’ve been tagging white sharks and other kinds of sharks, kinds from all over the world, but more recently are working in the North Atlantic. That’s I guess how we know about him.
Jordan: Why is O search creating Twitter accounts for sharks?
Chelsea: They have a pretty aggressive marketing campaign to connect people with the ocean and with, like, the living things inside of it, and to make people more aware of wildlife living in the ocean, and ocean health and that kind of thing. They didn’t actually, the way that it started was, I believe, a volunteer, just a member of the public started following their shark tracker and tweeting from I think it was the shark they tagged a number of years ago numerically and it ended up like being a hit, and so O search contacted this person and kind of like talked about them with, you know, with the kinds of information they would be wanting to share. And since then, they’ve given a good number of the sharks that they tag Twitter accounts because they just see it as a really good way for the public to I guess, get a better understanding of white sharks, especially because after Jaws there was kind of a negative backlash against them and people were really afraid of them. So that’s part of the thing they’re trying to do is make people be less afraid of them and to understand their importance in the ocean.
Jordan: Where did this company come from? And how unique is that approach that they’re taking?
Speaker 2: Yeah, it’s it’s pretty unique, or it’s, I guess, unique in how successful they’ve been. O Search was founded by a man named Chris Fischer. He’s from Kentucky and his family owned a company that sold, I guess, manufactured and sold like soda vending machines, and so he was working for that company for a while and after they sold he was kind of thinking, you know, like what I actually want to do with my life and always had this, like, strong connection to the ocean, to the natural world. He talked to me about spending a lot of time, you know, in the woods, catching fish, and you know, that kind of thing, and he was also an avid angler. So after leaving that company, he started a fishing show called Offshore Adventures and it was on ESPN, I believe, and then that as he was working on that show, he kind of started running into more scientists and talking about like, you know, what are the threats that are in the ocean right now? And they just kept coming back with, like, we have a shark problem. We have a shark problem because sharks are the top of the food chain. So the idea is that if the sharks aren’t doing well, then everything underneath them isn’t doing well either. So from there, he kind of got more into the shark/ research side of things, working with scientists and helping them get out into the ocean and to catch the fish and the sharks that they are studying. From that offshore adventures kind of like fun fishing show, he started expedition Great White which was more of a reality show, and then that turned into a show called Shark Men and Shark Wranglers after that. So there was kind of;I think there were three white shark related reality shows that came out of that. So O search is a conservation organization that came out of a reality show, which is pretty unique.
Jordan: How does the more traditional scientific community react to, I guess that origin story, but also that approach to conservation?
Chelsea: Well, it’s a bit mixed, I guess. I mean, most everyone I talked to appreciates what, O Search has done for awareness of sharks and the problems that our oceans are facing today, and then some people like they work with a lot of scientists. Now they out of that kind of like, original idea of helping scientists catch the fish, they’ve started their own science program, so they’re getting more into that side of things. So they worked with a number of scientists inviting them out onto the boat and asking them to, you know, publish papers based on the research they conduct with O search, and they really want people to, like, collaborate together. I guess some people are not as thrilled about;Not that they’re doing work, but I guess, in the way that they’re doing it, because they are so out there, they’re almost aggressive in their approach to collaboration. They want scientists to work with them and they’re not always maybe going about it in the way that established scientists in certain areas want them to do that. So they were here;They came up to Nova Scotia last September and they were here, I think, working for three or four weeks. And, yeah, they ended up finding a spot off, if you’re familiar with Nova Scotia, just close to Lunenburg and this town called Kingsburg and there’s a really popular beach there called Hurdles Beach, and they ended up anchoring about two kilometers off of Hurdles Beach, and it really made people nervous. People know that there have always been white sharks in that area, but just knowing that they were baiting and coming so close to a really public beach just made people, you know, they didn’t know what was going on, and they didn’t know how they were operating, and so people really were uncomfortable with that. That’s an example of kind of like where they’ve brushed up against a local community or a local science community and there was some backlash from both the community and the scientific community, as well. People questioning, I guess, their legitimacy as a science organization and that kind of thing.
Jordan: What is Chris Fischer like? You spent some time with him. He must be;To go from a reality show to a research company must be an ambitious move.
Chelsea: Yeah, he comes off as a very extroverted person. He is…. he’s really a nice guy. He’s very passionate about what he’s doing, but not a typical;He’s not a scientist, he’s a marketing;He comes from a marketing sales background, so that’s definitely something that’s running through everything he says. He’s very much selling the organization and their work and what they’re doing, and he very much believes in it.
Jordan: Because they started as kind of a reality show instead of as a scientific organization, are there any stories from those days that seem really at odds with what they’d later become?
Chelsea: So in the story describe an incident where they accidentally got hooked a shark, and this was in the very beginning when they were kind of learning how to do things, and the way they tag is not a way that a lot of people are tagging just because;They have the capacity to, like, actually bring sharks out of the water. There are a couple different kinds of tags. One is an acoustic tag, which is what most scientists are using to tag animals in the ocean, and how those work is they kind of like ping off of sensors that are close to the shore. Then there’s this other kind of tag called a spot tag, and this one actually uses;Its a satellite tag, so every time the shark comes up for more than a few seconds, it will ping a satellite and then send that information back to a computer so you can get a more accurate reading of where the shark is. So what they’re doing, what O search is doing is Chris Fischer actually bought a Bering sea crabber, and he retrofitted it into a research vessel so they have this lift. It’s a hydraulic lift that sits on the deck of the boat and when there’s a crew that’s often a smaller boat that is fishing for white sharks; When they get one, they’ll lift this big lift off the deck of the boat, it’ll go over the side of the boat and then down into the water. The smaller fishing vessel that has the hook shark will kind of lure it over towards the ship, and it will swim onto this platform and as soon as it’s on this platform, the platform will kind of raise out of the water. And Brett McBride, one of Fisher’s, I guess, coworkers. He’s the captain of O search, of the boat, he’ll like kind of jump into the water with the shark as it’s coming out coming like…. as the lift is lifting up. Yeah, and so then they put a towel over the shark’s face which relaxes it, and there’s a bunch of scientists that just kind of swarm the deck and they get to work. So they bolt this. It’s the size of a small flashlight, and hey bolt that to the dorsal fin of the shark, so that when they come up, the tag will be exposed and out of the water, and so they were doing this one day, and when they’re hooking sharks, I guess the shark is biting onto bate in order for that to work, and they’re still kind of figuring out the, you know, best practices for doing this. But the hook went into this sharks;Like too deep into the shark’s mouths, and it was stuck so they couldn’t pull it out. They didn’t realize this until the shark was on the lift and out of the water, so that shark ended up spending a lot more time than they would like a shark to be out of water. And oh something I didn’t mention, too, is like there’s a hose in the shark’s mouth so that there’s water continuously running through its gills so it can breathe. So it was safe, but definitely not something that they wanted to happen. It’s not an ideal situation, and the Fair land Islands are a… it’s a like marine protected area in the U. S. off the coast of San Francisco. So there’s a whole lot of regulations and that kind of thing surrounding that area because that shark had been out of the water so long officials were a little bit worried about the health of it, so they didn’t want to let them take any other;They have kind of suspended their tagging permit because they didn’t want them to tag any other sharks until they could figure out the situation and make sure the shark was safe because it had spent so long outside of the water and Brett McBride actually had to, like, take the hook out by putting his hand through the shark’s gills because obviously he couldn’t put his hand in the shark’s mouth and there was a bit of the hook that just stayed in there, they couldn’t get it out. So not ideal. I think it was about a year later that shark it was not its official name but became nicknamed Lucky because it survived and it did later ping, and they were allowed to continue tagging. But a year later, the shark showed up in the fair lawn, which is; There’s a lot of white sharks around that area, and it had an injury around its jaw. So a lot of people were worried and upset because they thought that, you know, the hook might have caused this problem, and people at the Marine Sanctuary decided that wasn’t what had happened, it looked like it had actually been bitten by another shark. But you can see, like how people would kind of be worried about that kind of thing and how it would stir up a little bit of controversy which it definitely did. Yeah.
Jordan: Well that’s why I asked you about the relationship between their work and those traditional signs of conservation because that sounds like something that they would not abide.
Chelsea: Well, there was actually;They were working with a traditional, a very well known scientist at that time. He was on board that day, and it was kind of his;Chris and the scientist kind of worked together on this method, so it wasn’t like non scientists were just going and tagging sharks. They probably would have been able to do that, but yeah, there was a scientist on board. He was very much involved in this whole thing, but it was at that time no one; Like people weren’t even using…. or not very many people were using spot tags at the time, so it was very, very new and people were worried about it.
Jordan: Is there a right approach in this case between sort of the more traditional research options and the more entertainment driven ones? Can they co exist?
Chelsea: That’s a really good question, and I think…. I don’t think there’s one right way. I think that there’s a lot of soul searching right now about how we get people to care about the planet. Our oceans are in crisis, we’re in a climate change crisis, and scientists and conservationists are fighting for space in the public eye just like every other cause. So we definitely need really good communications around this. We need people who know how to get attention for an issue, but at the same time conservation science and biology, is you know, the methodology behind it has been developed over centuries, and there are certain reasons why scientists do things certain ways. Not that everything scientists do is always right. That’s definitely not the case, but we need to figure out a way to get attention for causes, but also do the best things for those species. What ends up happening sometimes is like, you know, charismatic maggot megafauna end up getting most of the attention while you know, other species might not. Great white sharks aren’t endangered in the US. They’re listed as endangered in Canada but that is possibly because of a counting error. So O search is making a lot of noise about conserving white sharks, and it’s definitely important. They’re a really important species, but there are other species of sharks and rays that are way more endangered, but they’re not as exciting, so they don’t drum up the same kind of support. So I think balancing that, like getting people excited about;Even through a species like white shark, but making them understand that we need everything, and it’s not just this one species, and I think that’s something that we’re going to continue to grapple with, how to balance public interest and what’s best for the planet.
Jordan: What is O searches end goal, or what’s next for them after this consciousness raising kind of campaign they’re working on?
Chelsea: They really want to influence policy. So working with government to change policy to protect white sharks and other species in the ocean is well, and Chris Fischer I’ve kind of touched on it before, but he’s really aggressive about collaboration. He wants;Scientists work together, but usually on, I guess, smaller scales where they write a grant together and then they work on a specific project together. But Chris Fischer, with his kind of background in business, almost has kind of like a startup mentality to this, like a… more like of a sharing economy kind of thing where like he wants all of the data to be open to everyone and for researchers, you know, not to be holding anything close to their chest and everyone working on the problems together and knowing what other people are working on, and how they’re doing and what their data is and all of that kind of thing. And I had originally mentioned in the piece and get cut for space. But if you think of something like CERN in Europe and the Large Hadron Collider, where you had hundreds of physicists kind of working together to find the Higgs Boson particle, I think that’s more akin to what Fisher really wants. So I think he’s going to continue really pushing for scale of a whole collaboration if that makes any sense. More scientists working together, and even though he doesn’t come from the space and a lot of people over bristling at that, so yeah, we’ll see what happens.
Jordan: Thanks, Chelsea.
Chelsea: Yeah no problem.
Chelsea: Chelsea Murray, writer and editor and co founder of the Deep. That was The Big Story, for more from us hit us up @thebigstoryfpn, we’d love to hear what you think. We turn one next week. Give us some feedback. You can find all of our episodes at thebigstorypodcast.ca, and also on your favorite podcast application. That’s Apple, or Google, or Stitcher, or Spotify or literally any other one you can name, we are there. Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath Rawlings, we’ll talk tomorrow.
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