Just a few miles off the northern tip of Key Biscayne, with downtown Miami still visible in the distance, a ragtag crew of University of Miami students and shark researchers wrestle with a 500-pound great hammerhead shark.
“Grab the head, grab the head guys!” shouts Stephen Cain, assistant director of the UM Rosensteil School of Marine Science’s shark research and conservation program and leader of this particular shark tagging expedition.
Straining against the line attached to the hook in it’s mouth, the shark’s sword-shaped head, called a chephalophoil, rears out of the water. Alex Anstett, a 21-year-old undergrad, lies prone on a bobbing plastic platform attached to the back of the expedition’s boat. She lunges for the beast.
“Somebody grab my legs!” she yells.
This is shark tagging. It’s part science, part extreme sport, and with hammerhead sharks, always a race against time – the sharks can’t handle the stress of capture for long before their body suffer irreparable damage.
“Hammerhead sharks have an extremely pronounced stress response,” explains Stephen, “So we try to do all the science in under seven minutes.”
Working like a well-oiled pit crew, the team secures the shark’s tail with a rope, places a battery operated water pump in its mouth to keep it from drowning, and then sets about taking measurements, collecting blood, and attaching sensors that track the shark.
Great hammerheads can grow up to 20 feet long, though this one is just under 15 feet. They’re an incredibly well traveled fish. Satellites have tracked hammerhead shark migrations almost 2,000 miles. And their numbers are dwindling. Because they spend most of their lives swimming on their sides, their fins are quite long, and highly prized for the shark fin soup so popular in Asia.
Last year, the shark research and conservation program wrangled more than 350 sharks, but no encounter with these ancient predators is ever routine.
“It’s always a huge rush,” says Leila Atallah Benson, a master’s student in the program.
After the great hammerhead shark has been sent on its way, the team gets a moment to reflect.
“That….was a huge shark,” marvels Trish Albano, a UM undergrad.