The shark dubbed “Tough Guy” started his nine-month journey in the deep blue waters near Cancún. He swam around Cuba and then the Bahamas before heading up the east coast of the United States and beyond, toward Canada.
Scientists — and the general public — know that because they’ve been able to follow the tagged shark’s underwater path on a shark-tracking website run by the Guy Harvey Research Institute at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale.
As Shark Week dawns once again — a week of shark-intensive programming on the Discovery Channel — tracking the creatures online has become increasingly popular. While many tracking websites are made for entertainment purposes, the institute links the interest of the public with actual scientific research through the website, which went public in 2011.
“We did a website for educational purposes, for schools and for the public,” said Mahmood Shivji, director of the institute.
Representatives of the institute teach people about shark-tracking on the website at high schools during lectures about the importance of sharks.
Shivji said that the organization also holds shark “races,” including one last year between a shark named Trump and one named Clinton. The sharks, named by the institute, had about a month to travel the most miles.
“Naming the sharks makes it more fun for the general public, who wouldn’t otherwise be interested in the sharks,” Shivji said.
The website features dozens of individual sharks — including Tough Guy, a mako shark — and 16 tracking projects in various regions of the world. The site allows visitors to read details about each shark and to follow the sharks’ travels through animation.
Shivji said that shark tracking helps the institute understand marine wildlife.
“One of the many questions that is largely unanswered is: What are the migration patterns of the large animals that can swim long distances?” Shivji said.
He said the institute studies shark migration patterns in relation to fishing patterns in order to learn how to best protect sharks from being accidentally caught by people fishing for tuna and swordfish.
The electronic tags that the institute attaches to a shark’s fin cost about $1,800 each and are often sponsored by donors. Although Tough Guy was named by Guy Harvey himself, donors often name the sharks, according to Shivji.
The battery-operated tags last about a year and send signals of the shark’s path to a satellite dish when the sharks comes to the surface of the water.
Other scientists who track sharks use acoustic tags, which are usually inserted into the belly of the shark and send sound waves to underwater listening stations. This type of tracking is used by George Burgess,director of the Florida program for shark research at the The Florida Museum of Natural History at the University of Florida.
He said that he often partners with the Guy Harvey Research Institute and mainly uses acoustic tags to track bull sharks that nurse their young in different pockets along Florida’s shores.
“Over the past 30 or so years, scientists have done a pretty good job in changing the image of sharks … to one where we now understand that sharks are a part of a greater ecosystem and are natural predators that belong to the sea,” Burgess said. “We are eco-visitors every time we enter the sea.”