Students from Brunswick School in Greenwich spent a week on the water last summer.
They returned with more than tans. They learned about the threats faced by the ecosystem in the world’s oceans, and how scientists are working to save the sea and the apex predator.
And they learned about life.
The teens were immersed in the work of Ocearch, a nonprofit that travels the world tagging great white sharks and working with scientists on ways to collect data. The students walked and worked alongside the crew catching sharks and the scientists who studied them.
“Unless you give kids authentic experiences where they can see what it’s like to be a marine biologist, see what it’s like to wait and wait and wait for a shark, or all the collaborative nature of things — you can teach them all the biology you want and they’re not going to remember more than the word mitosis,” said Dana Montanez, chairman of the Upper School Science Department at Brunswick School. “You have to really show them other things, show them mentors and people who are passionate. So maybe they don’t find that science is their passion, but they find something else that they’re passionate about and that carries through.”
Montanez said Brunswick chose students with myriad interests for the trip, from marine biology to business to a filmmaker who documented the week.
Ocearch catches sharks with a rod and reel, then delivers them to the scientists via a cradle on the former Bering Sea crab boat. It’s a race against time once a shark is caught. A crew member monitors the time and logs the tests and process, while hoses are used to irrigate the shark’s gills and keep oxygen in its blood. The process is kept to roughly 15 minutes and the shark is released alive.
This summer, Ocearch anchored off Long Island. Other missions have taken the crew to Mexico, South Africa, Florida the Carolinas, and Massachusetts.
Such Ocearch expeditions were once TV fare. But when shows were not renewed, founder Chris Fischer made the work of Ocearch public. Data is shared. Anyone can follow the journeys of a tagged shark through tracking apps. The media and students are invited on board for close look at projects that bring anglers and scientists together, each relying on the other’s skills.
In the same manner, Ocearch is relying on students to share its message with a new generation.
Fischer said the goal is to have high school students become the voice of the cause among their peers.
“That’s a whole different Twitter universe than I’m in,” Fischer said on the boat in August.
“It’s very powerful when you’re a young person and you get another message from a young person.”
“You can watch a video about it, but when you see it in person, when you see what they’re doing, see them catching sharks, working on them, it’s a total eye-opening experience,” said Brunswick science teacher Oliver Bierman-Lytle said aboard the Ocearch in August.
“That kind of experience really had a huge influence on how I see what they do and its impacts on the world today,” student Andrew Mellert said after returning from the trip, adding that he really saw the passion of those involved.
“I’m definitely more interested just because I think we gained the experience of witnessing the sharks first-hand and that’s something you really can’t get in the classroom,” student Chris Burdick said. “On our trip home I think we sort of realized that we were all more interested in sharks.”
The sharks were not cooperative for much of the students’ stay on the Ocearch. They were on their way to land via launch when they were called back as Capt. Brett McBride battled the first great white shark of Expedition New York.
“The glorification of shark fishing is a overrated,” student Jack Altman said. “There’s a lot of waiting.”
But at the end of that waiting came a reward.
“Being on the Ocearch boat was my first time fishing ever, and I knew nothing about marine life,” said Iyayi “Caleb” Osemobor. “Being close enough to a great white shark my first time fishing, to touch one on the nose, was a very powerful experience.”
“It’s a completely different experience from anything else you would do,” Mellert said.
And it changed the views of some from what they had previously been exposed to. Greyson Wolfram said it was different to see “such a powerful creature” in real life after being exposed to the images and depictions found in mass media.
The students now want to spread a more accurate account of sharks, and share Ocearch’s message.
Ocearch, Brunswick and sharks are now intertwined. The Ocearch crew names each shark it tags, and off Montauk on Aug. 22 named a 4-foot-long, 54-pound juvenile great white Brunswick in the school’s honor. Brunswick and other sharks tagged by Ocearch can be tracked real time at ocearch.org.
The students also formed a club, and are working to raise money and spread the Ocearch message.
“We want people to understand sharks are an essential part of the ecosystem,” Mellert said.
“The main mission is to raise awareness and spread the Ocearch message to as many people as we can,” Burdick said.
“Half their message is educating the world about the importance of sharks,” Mellert said. “The tagging and the research they’re doing is great, but without this kind of awareness of what they’re doing and the support from the global community they’d never be able to get what they want done. That aspect of having people come on the boat and understand the great research that they’re doing is essential to having their message grow, and not just from one boat but across the world.”