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Captain Brett McBride streams seawater over the gills of a nearly 15-foot, 2,292-pound great white shark on the research vessel Ocearch in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Chatham.
Wednesday September 19, 2012

CHATHAM (AP) -- The scientists and fishermen on board the Ocearch, a repurposed crabbing vessel, received word that their scouting boat had hooked a great white shark, sparking a flurry of activity.

They were about to get up close and personal with the animal, more than 2,000 pounds and nearly 15 feet long.

"I'm nervous," said state shark expert Greg Skomal, who has tagged great whites, but never like this, never this close.

The Ocearch crew tags great white sharks in an unorthodox way. Unlike Skomal's team, which has tagged a dozen great whites off the Massachusetts coast with harpoons, Chris Fischer's Ocearch crew baits the fish and leads them onto a large platform that lifts them out of the water for tagging and collecting blood, tissue and semen samples.

Ocearch, a nonprofit re search organization named for a combination of "ocean" and "research," is crewed mainly by sport fishermen. It is funded by sponsors and donors, and a South Africa expedition was the subject of History channel's "Shark Wranglers."

Now, Ocearch has come to Cape Cod for a few weeks, minus the reality show and plus local scientists, to help shed light on the sharks' migration patterns, protect breeding and birthing sites, improve public safety and raise awareness about the threatened species that is a rising presence in the area.

"We have massive knowledge gaps about how to protect their future," said Fischer, Ocearch's expedition leader.

Five years of pings

Ocearch's real-time satellite tags last five years. Each time sharks' dorsal fins breaks the surface, the tags ping a satellite and mark an online map.

The work is dangerous for both man and fish. One shark died on the lift in South Africa. The crew tries to return sharks to the water within 15 minutes.

"I used to be nervous of what they'd do to me," co-captain Jody Whitworth said. "Now I worry that we'll hurt them."

Most of Fischer's crew spends each day on a boat barely bigger than the great whites, traveling among chum locations and looking for sharks.

Just after dusk on Sept. 13, they spotted a great white and hooked it. Then, the small boat's crew slowly led the shark four miles to the 126-foot Ocearch.

Ocearch Capt. Brett McBride guided the shark onto the wooden platform with metal sides. Barefoot, he jumped in too. The lift slowly rose out of the water, level with Ocearch's deck.

The shark thrashed and bared her teeth as the water receded, curving her head and tail into the air.

McBride threw a wet towel over her eyes and removed the two-foot hook from her mouth. He pumped water over her gills with two large hoses.

The crew jumped onto the lift in their jeans and long-sleeve shirts, and the clock began.

Nearly 15 feet long

They measured the fish -- 14 feet, 8 inches and 2,292 pounds -- and screwed the satellite tag, an accelerometer and an acoustic tag onto her dorsal fin with a power drill. Researchers collected blood and tissue samples.

After nearly 15 minutes, everybody scrambled off as the lift was lowered back into the water.

McBride grabbed Genie's tail and slowly guided her back into the ocean. They were done in 16 minutes flat. Genie drifted down into the dark water. The crew clinked beer cans and soda cups.

"That one shark alone was worth the trip," McBride said, noting she might lead researchers to breeding and birthing sites. "Any time we tag a great white shark it adds tremendous information to what we already know, which is very little."

Genie has pinged several times in the waters off Nantucket. So far, she's the crew's only catch.