UM biologist tags tiger sharks with Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski
One of the stars of Shark Week — aside from Shaquille O’Neal, Lindsey Vonn, Rob Gronkowski, Ronda Rousey, Aaron Rodgers, Guy Fieri, BearGrylls, the cast of Shark Tank and the ocean’s most powerful predators themselves — is University of Miami biologist Neil Hammerschlag, who has become a regular on the annual “jawsome” series, starting Sunday through July 29 on the Discovery Channel.
The intrepid Hammerschlag, director of the Shark Research and Conservation Program at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy, appears as the shark expert in three of the 22 documentary episodes of Shark Week’s 30th anniversary: Monster Tag, 8 p.m. July 23; Shark Tank Meets Shark Week, 9 p.m. July 25; and Tiger Shark Invasion, 10 p.m. July 26.
New England Patriots tight end “Gronk” Gronkowski joined Hammerschlag’s team at Tiger Beach in the Bahamas while Vonn and Rodgers go on other research tagging expeditions. Last year Hammerschlag coached 23-time Olympic champion Michael Phelps on how to (sort of) race a Great White. This year Hammerschlag taught rookie scuba diver Gronk how to safely interact with sharks — and tiger sharks tend to be voracious and indiscriminate eaters.
“He’s definitely a land-based guy and not the most graceful diver, but he did something most people would not do — he swam with sharks,” Hammerschlag said of the burly football star. “Underwater he was high-fiving me. Big sharks came very close and he must have been nervous but showed no signs of panic. He was a lot of fun because he was like a kid in a candy store.”
Hammerschlag said Gronk was a fast learner.
““You could tell he’s used to listening to coaches and taking instruction,” he said. “He understood he was a student. He was really enthusiastic and respectful.”
Each Shark from Shark Tank was deployed to a shark-related nonprofit organization to learn about the dangers of finning and microplastics and the benefits of conservation. Barbara Corcoran joined Hammerschlag for a day of tagging in Miami and learned about his FINS (Females in the Natural Sciences) outreach program for kids.
“She did everything with a hands-on approach,” he said. “She’s used to being in charge. She did a great job asking questions and learning what we do.”
The Sharks — Mark Cuban, Daymond John, Kevin O’Leary, Robert Herjavec and Corcoran — then reconvened at their TV studio to pitch and compete among themselves to decide which organization wins a $50,000 donation, which will be revealed on the show.
For Tiger Shark Invasion, Hammerschlag traveled to the Galapagos Islands with colleague Alex Hearn to study why the tiger population has increased there.
“The Galapagos is a shark mecca with high diversity,” he said. “Tigers have a wide diet. They eat turtles and we focused on a turtle nesting beach. Like all sharks, they have a great sense of hearing and can sense vibrations from far away, even when fish are purging water over their gills. They can see well in low light — not in color and with low resolution, but it gives them an advantage in hunting. And of course they have an excellent sense of smell.”
Other shows feature Grylls chumming from a helicopter and diving into a feeding frenzy, Shaq overcoming his fear of sharks, Olympic and mixed martial arts fighter Rousey’s encounter with mako sharks, a search for great whites at their hotspot off Guadalupe Island, finding a great hammerhead named the Queen and a great white named El Monstruo off Cuba’s coasts, an examination of whether the great whites off Montauk are making a comeback four decades after Jaws scared everybody out of the water, and five Naked and Afraid veterans surviving for 14 days on an island in the Bahamas surrounded by shark-infested waters.
“Shark Week creates knowledge of our program and communicates what is fascinating about science to the public,” Hammerschlag said. “What’s the point of science if people aren’t aware of it? What better opportunity to educate people than during Shark Week?”