What do South Bimini in the Bahamas and the Tancook Islands have in common? They are both (as of this summer) home to marine research field stations studying shark behaviour.

The Bimini Biological Field Station Foundation (Shark Lab) has been running since 1990 though, while the Tancook Islands Marine Field Station welcomed its first graduate student in June of this year.

The station

Founded by University of Windsor biology professor Nigel Hussey, the Tancook station currently hosts three graduate students studying white sharks (aka great white sharks) in Mahone Bay.

In the world of marine biology, living in the ecosystem you are studying for any length of time is a rarity, Hussey explained in an interview.

“These days, graduate students undertaking their research projects in marine science may only go into the field for a week or two … That doesn’t give you a feel for what’s happening there,” he said. Working and living at the field station, on Big Tancook Island, students are “collaborating and living long term in their study sites,” Hussey said. That allows them to see “the conditions in the ecosystem and how it’s changing, so we have a better understanding and feel” beyond looking at data.

Headshot of a bald white man with a short grey beard standing in front of a building with blue siding.
Dr. Nigel Hussey of the University of Windsor, and head of the Tancook Islands Marine Field Station Credit: Contributed

Hussey, who is on the board of advisors of the Bimini station, said he was inspired by the time he spent there, calling it “amazing.” He said, “The idea behind the station is much more than just the science. It’s people learning about life as well as doing the science.”

He came up with the idea for the Tancook station three years ago, reaching out to fishers to ask if they were interested in the project. There’s no sense in embedding scientists in a community if the community doesn’t want them there. He’s spent the last year and a half setting up the station, living on the islands while on sabbatical.

The station consists of a main building with a communal eating area, a lab (aka “brains building”) and a couple of bunkhouses that will eventually allow for up to 10 graduate students to be in residence. It’s also got a vegetable garden, and students are learning to grow their own food with some help from local community members.

Drone shot of a blue building and outbuilding, along with a mowed lawn and fenced-in vegetable garden, surrounded by evergreen trees.
The Tancook Islands Marine Field Station Credit: Contributed

Wesley Ogloff was the first student to arrive, on June 7. A couple of days later, before launching into her research, she was helping to pour a concrete slab for a local basketball court. “It was a big community-wide effort to get it done in one afternoon, and we went over to join in with that.”

Ogloff’s research focuses on how white sharks are using Mahone Bay, but she hasn’t actually spent much time near the ocean.

“This is the first time I’ve lived by the ocean as a marine biologist. It’s cool to actually be here by the ocean and be in the study area. It’s a different dynamic compared to a few intense weeks and then going back to your regular day-to-day,” she said in an interview.

“You learn what the weather’s like, and what the conditions are like in a more hands-on way, over a longer time period. You’re talking with the locals more, and so you’re getting those really expert perspectives that come from experience on what’s going on … They know so much. They know what species come, and when they come, and where they hang out, and what the conditions are like, They’ve just got a deeper, more holistic understanding of the system, having lived and worked here their whole lives.”

The research

Last summer, a white shark spent close to two months hanging out in Mahone Bay. And at least 82 other white sharks spent some time either in, or passing through the bay.

The three students working with Hussey at the field station this year — Ogloff, Joseph Fotso Tagne, and Teah Burke — are all involved in shark research. Ogloff uses data from an array of acoustic receivers set up around Mahone Bay to track shark movements, Tagne is working with underwater video to identify individual sharks and their behaviour, while Burke said in an email that she “uses an archived collection of Australian white shark vertebrae to examine their ecology (e.g., diet and movement) and age using stable isotope analysis.” Burke is also using drones to study seal hot-spots, and then determine if there is a correlation between those spots and places sharks visit (presumably to eat the seals).

A montage of headshots of three young people in front of a blue wood siding background. From left to right they are a white woman with long hair, a Black man with close-cropped hair, and a white woman with glasses and shoulder-length hair.
Students at the Tancook Islands Marine Field station this summer. From left to right: Wesley Ogloff, Joseph Fotso Tagne, and Teah Burke. Credit: Contributed

White sharks are a species at risk, but there is no management plan for them in Mahone Bay because it was once thought they weren’t present in significant numbers. But that’s clearly not the case.

“They are present in the ecosystem, they are part of the ecosystem,” Hussey said. “When we consider that the white shark is a species present in the ecosystem and the numbers are increasing, then we do need a formal management plan.” He said the team’s priorities are to “generate data for species management” and “to mitigate against human-shark conflict.”

The acoustic receivers in the bay will register a tagged shark if it swims within 500 to 800 metres of them.

“Last year, was the first time we did that, and we had 35 receivers out there. This summer we’ve expanded a bit and we’re at 47,” Ogloff said. “And so my work is looking at how [the sharks] are using Mahone Bay, how many sharks are coming in, what areas they’re coming into, and how repeatable that is across the years.”

Last year, the array registered 83 individual sharks. In addition to the one who spent a good part of the summer in Mahone Bay, Ogloff said, “There was a handful of individuals who hung around for a week or two, kind of bouncing between the sites before they moved on.” The rest of the white sharks were just passing by the mouth of the bay, off Cross Island and Pearl Island.

Of course, these are only the sharks that are already tagged, indicating that the real numbers are higher. Hussey said he hopes the team will be able to tag more this summer. And the underwater video cameras will also help, because they can capture images of any shark that swims by, tagged or not.

A young Black man leans over the side of a boat, holding a metal basket with bait fish, that has a camera attached.
Joseph Fotso Tagne with the Baited Remote Underwater Video system, for filming sharks. Credit: Contributed

The data should help provide “baseline information we’re looking to collect, to help us figure out the best way to manage them,” Ogloff said. She added that people regularly ask how many sharks there are, and if it’s OK to go swimming.

The community

When Hussey first started thinking about buying land on on of the Tancook Islands and opening a field station, he approached David Baker, a longtime lobster fisherman who is also president of the local harbour authority.

“He was looking for an area to possibly set up, and asked if he could have access to our wharf and a few other things,” Baker said in an interview. “We got talking, and he started looking at properties around the island, and he wound up buying the [field station] property” on Big Tancook Island.

The researchers work closely with locals, and draw on their knowledge. The acoustic arrays are placed in the bay by Baker and other fishers; they go in after lobster season is over, and come out of the water in November, before it starts, to avoid any possibility of entangling fishing gear.

“Nigel works with the fishermen. I’ve been involved with going out to put the recorders where they are safe from fishing gear, storms, that sort of thing, and this research will be important for all of us coming up, because there is very little known about the white sharks,” Baker said. “How many of them are really here?”

Hussey called the local fishing community “key to the design of the research project.”

Baker added that he appreciates the way the researchers have quickly become involved in life on the islands, and that the station is “a welcome addition to the community.” Kids are invited to tour the field station, it may provide employment for local students in summer as it grows, and in a province where wharf repairs are not always high on the list of budget priorities, “it really helps our situation with our wharf, for prioritizing how important it is. It’s only a small fishing wharf, and having a research facility use it makes it more important.”

And Baker says knowing that there are dozens of sharks in Mahone Bay shouldn’t stop anyone from swimming: “Just don’t go fishing off a boat, clean the fish, put fish blood in the water, and then go swimming off the boat.”

Philip Moscovitch is a freelance writer, audio producer, fiction writer, and editor of Write Magazine.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Only subscribers to the Halifax Examiner may comment on articles. We moderate all comments. Be respectful; whenever possible, provide links to credible documentary evidence to back up your factual claims. Please read our Commenting Policy.