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Shark Girl in a Whale World

Author: Natasha Hynes

One of my bosses, Moe, always remarks how I’m just a shark girl living in whale world. She’s right- I’m living the whale-lover’s dream and yet always daydreaming about elasmobranchs. I get to study the North Atlantic right whale and their food and I hang out on boats for most of the summer. I get to see some of the world’s most beautiful creatures - not only the North Atlantic right whale, but also fin whales, humpback whales, minke whales, all kinds of dolphins, porpoises, and seabirds*.

But nothing compares to moment I see a shark fin breaking the surface of the ocean.

I’m fortunate to be out on the water with such amazing people. They always make sure to let me know when a shark is around. Someone screams “Natasha – SHAAARK!” across the boat and everyone points so I can catch a glimpse of the dorsal fin before it is again lost to the waves. It’s a small window into the world of these incredible animals, and for a moment, I can sit in the appreciation of being near them, even from the deck of a boat.

One morning in July 2021, we woke up to a particularly calm day. Out in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the water was glass. The sky was open and there was no wind to be felt. Whales were blowing all around the vessel. Gina Lonati (a PhD student in the Davies Lab at UNB) and I launched the drone to take video of the whales but by the time the drone was in the air, all the whales seemed to have dove. After a few moments, Gina announced that she could see a whale coming up under the surface. But then she said “Oh wait… I think it’s a shark!” I immediately homed in on the surface below the drone. I couldn’t see anything out on the water – just pure glass. But beneath the surface, the world’s second-largest shark swam – the basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus). These creatures can reach up to 45 feet long and weigh up to 10,0000 pounds. Gina agreed to get video of the basking shark swimming under the surface while I bounced around the deck, anxiously waiting for the dorsal fin to come to the surface. But it never did. If it weren’t for the drone, I never would’ve even known it was there.

We promptly got on with the rest of our research, as the whales had surfaced again and were being very cooperative for getting drone footage of them. But all I thought about all day were basking sharks. Later that night, I asked Gina if we could look at the drone footage she’d taken of our shy friend. We shuffled through a few videos and finally found the one where, in a small section of the frame, there was the faint shadow of a shark under the surface. As the drone zoomed in on the shark, my breath was taken away.

Seeing this shark from above was entirely different from seeing the dorsal fin from a boat. The large, triangular dorsal fin was a mere snippet of the beauty of this animal. The basking shark was swimming gracefully under the water, tail beating in a mesmerizing pattern. I was in a trance. Every aspect of this creature was captivating – the way it swam, the colour and pattern of its skin, a small patch of white near its peduncle, the opening and closing of its mouth. Basking sharks are a planktivorous shark, meaning they feed on microscopic animals by filtering through the water column. They also display counter shading; their skin is dark on the top part of their body and light on their belly. Looking down from above, this individual nearly blended in with the dark ocean below it. As I watched the shark fade from the screen, a deep admiration for this magnificent group of animals washed over me.

And to think - this animal was so close to us, yet perfectly hidden just below the surface. With my eyes glued to the screen, I was reminded again of how wonderful it is right now to be a shark girl living in this whale world.

*Research carried out with permits from Fisheries and Oceans Canada.

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