Shark to Satellite, I'm in the Tasman Sea

MELBOURNE, Australia, May 17, 2001 (ENS) - Australian marine biologists are using satellites to monitor a young white shark in Australia's southeast waters in a project that they hope will shed more light on the behavior of sharks as a species.

Scientists Dr. John Stevens and Barry Bruce pf the Australian government research branch CSIRO placed a satellite signalling tag on the juvenile male shark off Port Albert, Victoria on March 2.

The shark was named Neale after local commercial fisherman Neale Blunden, who assisted in its capture.

Neale was captured in snapper fishing grounds under a permit issued by the Department of Natural Resources and Environment. The 2.4 meter (7.8 foot) shark was brought aboard the vessel Sea Pride, fitted with a satellite tag and then released in a six minute operation.


Juvenile white shark is tagged with a satellite transmitter. (Photo courtesy CSIRO Marine Research)
Barring damage to the 20 centimeter long tag, or accidental capture of Neale, the scientists hope the project will enable them to follow Neale's daily and seasonal movement patterns for up to a year.

"Applying satellite tags is a difficult process and tags are expensive, but this type of tracking is allowing us to build a picture of the movement and behaviour of white sharks in Australian waters," says Dr. Stevens.

"For example, we hope to establish how closely the shark's movement patterns are aligned to those of the snapper schools where he has been feeding and how far he ranges when these schools disperse," he said.

The project is being conducted by CSIRO Marine Research with assistance from the Melbourne Aquarium and Discovery Channel. The work is part of a larger study on white sharks in southern Australia funded under the Natural Heritage Trust through Environment Australia's Marine Species Protection Program.

Twelve months ago, the same research team tagged a juvenile female shark they called Heather. Heather's tag transmitted for 46 days, when scientists believe she damaged the transmitter's aerial, and contact was lost. During that period she travelled roughly 800 kilometers (500 miles).

Since Neale was tagged, the scientists have received signals every two or three days. During that time the shark has travelled more than 850 kilometers (527 miles). It swam up and down a 75 km (46 mile) section of the Victorian coast at an average distance of 15 km (nine miles) from shore for the first seven weeks of the track.

Then the shark headed north along the Victorian coast on April 19 at an average speed of three km per hour and five to six km from shore before moving offshore and turning south. The he swam south, across Bass Strait, reaching northern Tasmanian waters on April 26.

The scientists hope the tracking project will provide some insight into whether white shark populations in various parts of Australia are linked.

"We are now at the exciting stage," says Bruce. "Neale has switched behavior from patrolling the coastal reefs off Victoria to a broad-scale move out of the area. We are eagerly awaiting his next move."

Craig Thorburn, curator of the Melbourne Aquarium, said there has been considerable public interest in understanding the species.

"This latest tagging is an important opportunity at building a scientific profile of white shark behavior. Only by tagging and tracking sharks in this way can we answer many of the questions that environmental and coastal managers, and the public, want to know about this species," he said.

Thorburn said the Melbourne Aquarium will continue to support the project in several ways, including the Aquarium's education programs and through presentations on the marine environment and marine environmental issues.

A map charting the shark's whereabouts is updated regularly by CSIRO scientists. The next update is expected Friday.