It is not quite noon off South West Corner and the research boat Makaira has been trawling the deep offshore fishing grounds without success for nearly six hours.
Amid the jumble of nets, spears, tags and camera gear on deck, Guy Harvey and his small crew survey the horizon, searching for patches of driftwood or sargassum weed that can be magnets for marine life in the vast expanse of the open ocean.
Occasionally the radio crackles into life with news from the fleet of 50 fishing boats, but so far the news isn’t good.
The great shark hunt is under way. The only thing missing is the sharks.
“It takes a lot of patience; if it was easy, everyone would be doing it,” says Mr. Harvey, the painter, fisherman and conservationist who is leading a team from his research institute in a study, which will involve attaching satellite tracking tags to around 50 oceanic whitetip sharks.
The scale of that undertaking is beginning to become apparent.
These waters used to be teeming with oceanic whitetips, formerly one of the most abundant large species in the Atlantic Ocean.
Today, with anglers chumming the waters in search of big game fish in the Cayman Islands International Fishing Tournament, there is plenty of food on offer, but no sign of the sharks.
The action picks up later in the afternoon. A fisherman calls in a blue marlin catch, and the researchers race across to attach a tag – useful data for another of Guy Harvey’s research projects but not much help with the shark study.
The boat’s passengers spend some time scuba diving and filming around a floating wooden pallet, surrounded by bait fish and mahi-mahi, all the time expecting the unmistakable shape of an oceanic whitetip to emerge from the blue.
But the predators remain elusive, until late in the afternoon when the radio bursts into life with news of a shark on the hook 3 miles to the west.
It turns out to be a juvenile, about 3 feet long. The scientists take a DNA sample and some vital statistics but decide it is too small to affix a tag to its still growing dorsal fin.
Encouraged by the sighting, everyone hopes for more, but that turns out to be the only action for the day.
By the end of the tournament, just three sharks have been hooked, one of them the juvenile.
It’s a disappointing return, but the results help illustrate the reasons for the study.
Mahmood Shivji, the director of the Guy Harvey Research Institute at Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, says the shark population in the Atlantic has been decimated by longline fishing boats. Oceanic whitetips were frequently caught as by-catch by boats targeting tuna and swordfish.
“In the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico, they used to be one of the most abundant species. The population now is a small fraction of what it was historically.”
He is hoping for better results during the Kirk Slam tournament next month. Ten sharks were tagged during that tournament last year, and the researchers believe the timing may be better.
The novel partnership with anglers allows them to cover far more ocean than would be possible in the research boats alone. It also serves to bring fishermen into the fold when it comes to protecting sharks, which as apex predators are vital to the health of the fishery as a whole.
A blanket ban on killing sharks came into force Wednesday as part of the National Conservation Law.
Brad Wetherbee, who works with the research institute, said the law is a great start toward protecting species like the critically endangered oceanic whitetip, but warns the sharks are international animals. Beyond the boundaries of Cayman’s territorial waters they have no such protection.
The researchers believe the data from the tags will provide ammunition to negotiate with other governments in the region for a coordinated policy of protection for the animals in the Caribbean Sea.
The Smart Positioning or Temperature tags, which are literally bolted to the shark’s fin, transmit a location signal every time the fin breaches the surface, typically providing a 12- to 18-month track of the shark’s movements.
Data from the sharks tagged last year shows some have roamed thousands of miles. One shark, named Debbie by the researchers, has wandered the outer reaches of the Caribbean Sea, hugging the coast of Mexico and Honduras, later traveling as far east as Haiti and then south to Aruba.
“If we don’t know where they are going, we don’t really know who is responsible for them,” said Mr. Wetherbee.
“If it was just one country, it would be much easier to manage. In this region there are 16 different countries whose territorial waters the sharks are traveling through. If we get enough tags out, we can hopefully get enough data to at least demonstrate the extent of cooperation required to manage the species.”
He said the data may also establish the regions where sharks spend most of their time.
The project is being funded by the Guy Harvey Research Institute, with the backing of sponsors including the Department of Environment, the Dart group and CayBrew.
Tracks from the tagged sharks can be viewed at www.ghritracking.org.