‘Shark Man’ docks in Mossel Bay

OCEARCH, a non-profit organization with a global reach for unprecedented research on the ocean’s giants, conducts research in Mossel Bay during March on a collaborative expedition to benefit at least 18 South African shark research projects. Here an OCEARCH crew member prepares for the release of a mature female white shark, using their specialized method.

MOSSEL BAY NEWS - It's hard to capture and convey Chris Fischer's larger than life persona, but maybe that is exactly the reason why he is fast achieving his goal.

A decade ago, this expedition leader, founding chairman of OCEARCH, founder and CEO of Fischer productions, member the prestigious Explorers Club and seven-time Emmy Award winner, set a course to become the 'voice of the ocean'. He wanted to bring the seas into people's homes, creating awareness and appreciation for marine environments on a global scale. From this firm foundation he knew he could ultimately shape public opinion and policy for the greater good of the world's oceans.

Since 2007, Chris has lead expeditions to advance science and unlock the mysteries surrounding the life history of White Sharks and other giants of the ocean, pouring millions of dollars into research to grow the body of knowledge. It is this quest that brought him on his twelfth expedition to Mossel Bay in March. For the past four years, research done during these expeditions has been televised in 178 countries in 29 languages, packaged as 'Shark Men' on National Geographic Channel.

The Mossel Bay connection

Fischer and his team pioneered a method for capturing and releasing giant sharks weighing up to 2 300kg. Thus far on their current expedition, they have tagged 26 sharks, 19 in Mossel Bay and 7 in Algoa Bay. Chatting to the Mossel Bay Advertiser on the MV Ocean, this week docked in the Mossel Bay harbour to have its anchor winch repaired after being damaged during the heavy storm on Saturday, 24 March, Chris confirmed that they have obtained a permit from the Department of Environmental Affairs to assist various research institutes in South Africa.

The Mossel Bay connection started in Honolulu when Chris met Ryan Johnson and Enrico Gennari, from Oceans Research. During 2011, after further discussions, Ryan Johnson immediately saw the potential impact of a collaborative research effort to be launched in South Africa. "We are involved with the largest shark research project in history. People tend to hoard data, but if we want to solve the global puzzle, research needs to be public. We have to learn as fast as we can, we don't have time not to share knowledge," says Fischer.

Through this collaborative effort, invaluable support has been given to 18 South African shark and ocean research projects. With the research being made public, learners from local schools can even track the movement of the recently tagged sharks.

Catching the 'uncatchable'
Being asked where it all started, Chris laughs and says: "I'm a recreational angler." He got his deep appreciation for the environment as a young angler in Kentucky, exploring the hidden waters as he went. "In America, the hunters can be credited for saving the forests, therefore anglers can do the same for the ocean," says Fischer, who is a convincing spokesperson for responsible fisheries management.

The OCEARCH vessel has a permanent crew of seven. This crew of expert fisherman have not only caught the ten biggest sharks ever, but have also released them safely.

"People often wrongfully think of the adrenalin rush experienced when a shark is brought in," says Fischer. "It is a very stressful experience, mentally, emotionally and physically draining. We have to see that shark swim away strongly."
It wasn't always plain sailing, though. Chris and his team were criticised in the past for their methods used, but this has been eclipsed by the sum total of positive feedback from data gained during the five expeditions done since. Fischer and OCEARCH are constantly designing new tagging and tracking technology, delivering more accurate and sustained global data collection than ever before. "We are fishing for the future. I would rather manipulate a few in order to save many," says Fischer with conviction. "If we lose the sharks, we lose the ocean and if we lose the ocean, we lose the planet. We have a big purpose!"

Ground breaking research
On the 126-foot MV Ocean, a unique system provides the opportunity for leading science teams to conduct unprecedented research on the oceans' giants. During the 13,5 minutes that sharks are in the specially designed cradle of the vessel, 40 different samples are drawn. "Time must be used with optimal efficiency, with eight people in attendance, drawing the samples and nurturing the shark at the same time." Even parasites and bacteria are collected from the shark's teeth and tongue, in lieu of developing an anti-biotic against infections resulting from non lethal shark bites. This job is clearly for the seriously committed, not for the faint hearted, but Chris just laughs, casually mentioning the constant presence of close calls in the line of duty.

Chris Fischer cares
Towards the end of the interview, Fischer starts eyeing his watch and explains that his wife was due at the George Airport with ten children from Acres of Love, a charity based in Johannesburg that they support. This marks their very first visit to the sea and Fischer seems equally excited at this prospect. On the deck of MV Ocean, tiny fishing rods, branded with Disney characters and super heroes keenly await little hands to hold them.

Chris is married to Melissa, has two daughters and lives in Park City Utah. For more information, visit www.ocearch.org

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