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Tagging a Memory: a Shark Tagging Adventure
Tagging a Memory

Photos & Story by
Taylor Main | SCDNR Photographer

It was an early morning at work, earlier than most. I was sitting in my car at the Bennetts Point boat slip before sunrise waiting to see the familiar SCDNR logo pull in beside me, signaling the beginning of my work day. I knew an exciting day on the water was ahead, as I was to take photos and video of our agency biologists attaching a satellite tag to a fin. My only frame of reference came from my annual binging of Shark Week on Discovery Channel. Jarring me from my thoughts, I heard the truck pull in, saw the four-person crew start loading gear from the bed of the truck onto the bow of the boat, took a deep breath, and opened my door.

When photographing, I always focus on telling a story. I wanted to capture this day step by step and here Brian Frazier is reeling in the shark on what’s called a Cuban Hand Reel. I make it a point to have the action of a photo directed inwards, which is why he is offset to the right a bit. This helps the eye move across the photo and shows what I wanted the viewer to see.

I walked over to SCDNR Marine Biologist and leader of the day’s expedition, Bryan Frazier, and introduced myself. There were five of us on this trip: Frazier, Gorka Sancho, a professor from the College of Charleston, and two grad students, Chelsea and Nick. Once the gear was loaded, we hopped on the boat and started the very cold and windy ride into St. Helena Sound. I was anticipating baiting a hook and holding a reel while waiting for a tug on the line to alert us to a shark on the other end. Oops. In reality, the bait was set on a hook and attached to a very long and strong (think shark-proof) line and tied to a buoy. The rig was thrown overboard where it had to sit for at least two hours. We (I say we as if I was the one doing this manual labor) made our way through five set-ups and then it was time to just watch the clock.

There are few words to describe the level of excitement I felt when Chelsea was reeling in the first line and announced that there was, without a doubt, a shark on the end. Mind you, I had only ever seen a shark in the wild one time, and it had been caught by accident at the end of a pier. Seeing a fin come out of the water and knowing that you’re on a boat with nowhere to go is an eerie feeling.

Following with my practice of offsetting the action, here is a photo of Frazier drawing blood on the shark. For photos like these where I only have a few seconds to capture the action, I take a rapid fire approach to ensure I get the photo I want.

Turns out, this was a blacktip shark, which was great, but not our goal of a tiger shark. The crew was able to determine the gender, draw blood, do an ultrasound, measure the shark, and tag the fin in what I would consider record speed. This happened two more times for a total of three blacktip sharks.

The first round of bait went three out of five for catching sharks, so as each line was reeled in, a new line was set. Like I said, the goal all along was to catch and tag a tiger shark. The first two lines of this next set came up empty, and I could tell the crew was getting a little antsy as to where these tiger sharks could be. The third line was the lucky one.  You can get a general idea of the species of shark on the end of the line just by reeling it in. With his years of experience, Frazier correctly deemed this catch a tiger shark. This twelve foot and change shark came up out of the water and I actually momentarily forgot to take photos because I was in awe. How can this massive creature be before my eyes? Well, there she was.

Because this is a vertical photo, the action is offset towards the bottom. I wanted to make sure this photo really captured the ultrasound that revealed this shark to be pregnant. I made sure to place my focus on Chelsea’s hand on the goggles because that’s where the action starts and leads the viewer’s eye down her arm to her hand administering the ultrasound.

Frazier and crew went right to work and secured her powerful tail with a lasso-type hold and a very thick rope to support her midsection. They skillfully attached this incredible piece of technology to the fin of the shark named Harry-Etta, named for the Harry Hampton Memorial Wildlife Fund. On several occasions, the crew was talking directly to her almost treating her as a puppy and not as an 820 pound shark that could rip an arm off. The level of respect this team had was amazing. Slipping into their routine, they attached this satellite tag that will ping when her fin surfaces anywhere in the world. The excitement continued as Chelsea conducted an ultrasound verifying Harry-Etta is in fact pregnant, measuring her entire length of 12 feet 2 inches, drawing blood, and a few other routine checks. Once verifying the tag was secure for the umpteenth time, Harry-Etta was off to the depths of the ocean once again.

I knew I needed to get a wide shot of Frazier attaching the satellite tracker to Harry-Etta’s fin. Telling a story requires close up photos and wide photos so here is the photo of most of the shark with the tracker being attached. In getting this wide photo, I needed to keep the focus on Frazier’s hands because that’s where I want the viewer’s eye to go.

We did have a second tiger shark make an appearance and she measured just shy of 14 feet long. That one took my breath away for a minute. The same tasks were completed again, just without the satellite tag this time. The last two hooks each brought up a sandbar shark, which were treated like the blacktip sharks and were measured, tagged, and sent on their way. I ended the day with a lot less energy but a lot more admiration for this incredible type of fish.

To finish this story, I needed to get a photo of the shark from nose to tail. Being on a boat, this made it tricky but I leaned way out over the edge and aimed back towards the boat. I had to take several to make sure I got the shark in focus and all of her in the frame. Just within these five photos, you can see the steps taken during the time Harry-Etta was beside the boat.

I have the coolest job, and the best part of it is being able to learn something more about this world we live in with every trip I take. I will be following Harry-Etta through her tracking device on OCEARCH and wondering if there’s a chance that one day, we’ll meet again. I’ll just plan on staying inside the boat when I say “Hi.”


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed on South Carolina Wild are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect official policies, positions, or endorsements of activity or products by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.