CHATHAM – Lucky students from across the country, and even other parts of the globe, had quite an opportunity when shark enthusiast and expert Greg Skomal joined the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy for an online Q&A session in which he shared some fun tidbits about his long history as a shark scientist.
On April 9 Skomal joined Marianne Long, education director for the AWSC, for a 45-minute chat about how Skomal got into the study of sharks. While most folks on the Cape are familiar with Skomal, a marine biologist with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, they might not have previously known that it was a classic 1970s film that sparked his affinity for sharks.
“I decided to become a shark scientist after watching 'Jaws,'” Skomal said, offering an overview of his schooling, which includes an undergraduate degree from the University of Rhode Island and a PhD from Boston University’s marine program.
“You can always go back to school,” Skomal said. “It’s never too late. It’s really worked out well for me. I absolutely love what I do.”
In response to chat-submitted questions from viewers in Texas, Canada, and other parts of the United States, Skomal gave an overview of his work, explaining that the division of marine fisheries is an extension of the National Marine Fisheries, each of which are part of state and federal environmental agencies. By working through and with such organizations, scientists like Skomal develop best practices for the various marine industries, including fishing.
Skomal explained how he’d worked up through his career to becoming the on-the-water person most shark enthusiasts are familiar with. But it took time, and much of his early years were spent doing work on dead sharks, rather than on the water tagging live sharks.
He’s been focused primarily on Cape Cod in recent years because of the increase in the white shark population here, which correlates directly with the burgeoning gray seal population. Skomal and other shark scientists are in the process of sifting through years of data complied as part of a population study off the Cape’s coast that will hopefully give them a better understanding of why there are so many white sharks here.
One viewer asked how, without pulling sharks out of the water, Skomal and his team can assess the size of sharks, and what the largest shark they’ve seen is.
“We use a couple of different methods to come up with sizes of our sharks,” Skomal said, adding that thanks to Wayne Davis’s spotter plane, which results in photos of sharks alongside the research boat, they can use the boat’s pulpit and tagging pole to get a good idea of a shark’s length. “We come up with a pretty good estimate of how big a shark is. Our average size is around 11 to 12 feet long, but we’ve seen them up to 18 feet.”
Skomal also told the students tuning in that a well-rounded education makes sense in pursuing a shark science career. He urged them to start with books and documentaries in the lower grades, and then narrow the focus to physics, biology, chemistry, and mathematics in high school.
“Math is a major component of the research,” he said. “If you’re interested in science, it’s not just riding around on boats and seeing some cool things. There’s a lot of math involved.”
Skomal then explained his chosen method of tagging, why video matters, and what the difference is between sharks from different parts of the world. Shark science, he said, never gets old.
“I’m kind of living the dream right now just by doing what we’re doing,” he said. [Today’s students will] eventually replace me. If this is what you love, do what I’m doing.