CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas — Researchers with the Harte Research Institute (HRI) for Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi traveled to Southern California to study Mako sharks with monster appetites to open the 29th season of Discovery Channel’s summer television event, “Shark Week.”
Shark experts from HRI’s Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation (CSSC) set out on a 7-day expedition to tag and study the over 1,000-pound Mako sharks that feed off the Southern California coast for a special called “Return of Monster Mako,” which airs at 8 p.m. CDT, Sunday, June 26, on the cable network, Discovery.
HRI will host an encore screening of “Return of Monster Mako” and a Q&A session with our shark experts at 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 29, in the Harte Research Institute building, room 127, on the Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi campus. Members of the public are invited to come learn more about the science that goes into studying these enigmatic sharks, as HRI shark scientists bring you behind the scenes of filming and answer your questions about interacting with these amazing animals.
“Return of Monster Mako” is a sequel to last year’s hit special, “Monster Mako,” which drew 3.265 million viewers and the highest TV ratings of the night in its Sunday premiere slot.
“Monster Mako” found HRI researchers teaming up with the Discovery Channel crew to catch and tag Makos off the South Texas coast with state-of-the-art scientific instrumentation, including an array of cameras known as the “Shark Eye” designed to temporarily attach to the shark and document never-before-seen underwater behaviors.
“Return of Monster Mako” sends the HRI crew with an improved camera tag, the “Shark Eye 2,” to the waters off Southern California where Mako sharks grow to more than 10 feet long and 1,000 pounds — what fishermen call a “grander” — and feed on large, hard to catch prey like seals. The Mako shark has captivated humans with its dramatic feeding behavior, breaching the water at high speeds with amazing aerial displays while hunting prey. With their new instrumentation, scientists hoped to document the predation behavior of these massive grander Mako sharks for the first time, as well as study and compare the behaviors of Pacific Makos to their Gulf of Mexico counterparts.
“How do these sharks behave when their prey is a once-in-awhile meal of seal versus feeding non-stop on fish in the Gulf? There’s an opportunity to gain unprecedented social and behavioral insights, the kind of things we can’t get from having one boatside,” said Dr. Greg Stunz, HRI Chair for Fisheries and Ocean Health and Director of the Center for Sportfish Science and Conservation.
“We are very pleased that the Discovery Channel has such confidence in Dr. Stunz and his team that they have continued to call on him for his scientific expertise,” said HRI Executive Director Dr. Larry McKinney.
Stunz led the tagging effort with former HRI Assistant Research Scientist Dr. Matt Ajemian, now an Assistant Research Professor with Florida Atlantic University's Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute. Most of the fishing was done in the dead of night to capture the elusive Makos, battle-scarred from hunting powerful prey like seals, Stunz said.
The group has tagged Shortfin Mako sharks in the Gulf that were up to 400 pounds, but these Pacific sharks were triple the size and awe-inspiring to see in person. Working with the Discovery Channel allows the CSSC to engage in “high risk, high rewards” science, Stunz said, capturing amazing footage of natural shark behavior that’s both valuable to researchers and thrilling to watch.
Because sharks function as top predators, changes in their population and location can have cascading effects on the ecosystems they inhabit. A slow-growing, long-lived species, many shark populations worldwide are in decline, including oceanic and coastal sharks in the Gulf of Mexico.
The CSSC runs a number of tagging programs to monitor shark populations and help fill information gaps about their lives in the Gulf. Working with fishermen, the CSSC has tagged more than 2,500 sharks along the Texas coast over the past seven years. The center has also partnered with the Texas State Aquarium and the nonprofit OCEARCH to use satellite tags to track Hammerhead, Tiger and Mako sharks. The tag pings with a location each time the shark surfaces, and millions of shark fans have followed the sharks’ movements online. You can learn more about that work through an interactive exhibit “Saving Sharks: Where Science and Sharks Meet” at the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi.
“As an apex predator, sharks are the great balance-keepers of the ocean. Healthy shark populations ensure healthy fisheries and healthy ecosystems,” Stunz said. “Beyond that role, they’re also great ambassadors for the ocean. People connect with sharks, and through them we can teach new generations about the importance of ocean health.”