(CNN) — Being approached by a US Coast Guard boat when you’re on the water is normally not a good thing. But when you’re with the crew of the M/V OCEARCH shark research vessel, it feels as if anything can happen.
“Can you bring Chris Fischer over to us?” the Coast Guardsman calls out, his thumbs tucked under his orange life jacket, a grinning tattoo of a shark swimming up his elbow. His men stand all around him on the boat, weapons at the ready.
Chris Fischer is the charismatic founding chairman and expedition leader of OCEARCH, a nonprofit that has been conducting high-profile research on great white sharks and other large apex predators. Today, a CNN crew is with the team on the hunt off the coast of Long Island.
The goal of this expedition is to tag a great white baby shark. The team has tagged more than 200 sharks and fish over the years, but it’s never caught a young of the year, as scientists call them.
Only one other great white shark pup has been tagged in the world, Fischer said, and never had one been tagged in the Atlantic.
Great whites, while well-known in pop culture, still hold great mystery. With more than 50 research papers already related to the data OCEARCH has gathered on sharks, tagging a young pup could yield many years’ worth of data that could help scientists better understand where the animals live and grow.
Based on tracking data the team has gathered from its famous adult female sharks, it believes the waters off Long Island are a shark nursery. They are not alone in this belief.
“We’ve seen pictures of all these young great white sharks people were catching like hotcakes in the area in the ’60s and ’70s, which provides some good information that this is probably the nursery,” said James Gelsleichter, a shark expert and associate professor of biology at the University of North Florida who has worked with OCEARCH, but did not join this expedition.
“With great whites being so difficult to study, we are still learning so much about them, and we really want to see more about how they move around and grow,” Gelsleichter said.
Overfishing and finning has made the great white shark population vulnerable. They’re listed under Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, which essentially means that although they aren’t threatened with extinction currently, sharks could become extinct if trade isn’t regulated closely. Legislation signed in 2011 put more conservation measures in place.
Data from fin tags on OCEARCH’s sharks suggest that the great white females mostly swim up and down the East Coast.
The team believes the mother sharks drop their babies off the coast of Long Island, largely so they can be protected from other animals in the shallow waters in those years of development. Though the mother sharks can be the size of a minivan, great white pups are more in the 5-foot, 80-pound range.
When the Coast Guard called us over, we had been tagging along in the crew’s SAFE boat, filming OCEARCH as it followed a rumor among local fishermen chasing squid, hoping there would be more sharks in a new location.
On this August morning, the team had caught only one small shark, but it was not a great white. The morning also yielded a run-in with a local commercial fishing crew who may have deliberately run over one of the team’s buoys in a turf battle.
OCEARCH had called the Coast Guard about it, but it was unclear why the military was summoning Fischer.
“We’ll go get Chris, sure,” the captain of our SAFE boat called out to the Coast Guard.
The SAFE boat is a small but mighty craft that typically ferries day-trippers out to M/V OCEARCH. Fischer regularly invites a mix of scientists, students, government types and journalists on excursions in hopes that more people will embrace his mission to save the sharks.
“As the white shark goes, the North Atlantic goes,” Fischer said. “It is the lion of the ocean. It is the great balance-keeper, and as our ocean goes, our planet goes.”
The 126-foot M/V OCEARCH, which had been used to fish for king crab in the Bering Sea, once made an appearance on the show “Deadliest Catch.”
On the day we joined the team, it was anchored about 45 minutes off the coast of Montauk. We waited to head out with an interesting mix of students, scientists and teachers at the Star Island Yacht Club, the excitement of what could happen clear on everyone’s face.
As we watched for the SAFE boat, we noticed a small black eel escape its bait box, snaking across the dock to make its way to the open water. A scientist took mercy on it, moving it along with her foot: “Be free, little guy,” she said as it plunked into the water.
Fischer finally came into view and picked us up near a playful model of a giant shark that hangs on a hook to advertise what may be out there waiting for us to catch.
Aboard the SAFE boat, Fischer guided us past the lighthouse and other boats heading out to fish. As we rode over the rolling waves, his passion for his mission became clear. He talked about the ocean and his hope that he can help people save the creatures that live in it, so that his grandchildren can still eat a fish sandwich long into the future.
Fischer navigated around a blonde woman in a speedboat, her sweater knotted around her neck, paying little attention to her direction. The wind knocked his baseball cap into the water.
“I see it, I see it,” one of the students called out; Fischer swung the boat around. The hat is one of a kind, a new Costa cap that one of his many commercial sponsors has given him.
Fischer, a maverick in the research world, has championed the use of large company sponsors to fund his expeditions. Logos are everywhere on the ship: on the coolers, on the shark platform used for research, even on the cornhole game the team plays during down times.
OCEARCH has also raised money through crowdfunding and by creating its own merch, including trucker hats and its own beer. But some more traditional scientists aren’t as comfortable with the commercialization of the work and all the publicity the team gets.
“I think we’re on top of it,” someone said as Fischer maneuvered the boat around to find the hat. “It should pop up,” someone else said, each passenger scanning the vast ocean.
Sure enough, the hat surfaced, and a teacher leaned over to fish it out. Fischer had already brought people together from all walks of life in this small effort of conservation, and it isn’t even 10 in the morning.
Fischer doesn’t have a Ph.D., nor is he affiliated with a university.
A native of Kentucky and brother of the current mayor of Louisville, he first got national attention as the host of an Emmy-winning ESPN show called “Offshore Adventures.” He would catch and release fish to demonstrate sustainable fishing.
As he got more involved in conservation, one of the scientists he invited on a trip told him that the way to save the sea would be to save its apex predators.
In order to do that, scientists would need to know more about the way the animals behaved. Another scientist approached Fischer with the fin tracker OCEARCH uses, telling him, “If we could get this on a great white shark, we could change everything.” So that’s what he set out to do.
In addition to buying the boat and hiring a crew, Fischer put together an active social media and marketing team to capture the public’s attention and attract sponsors. Sharks OCEARCH has tagged, like Mary Lee, Katharine and Lydia, have become media sensations. You can follow them all on the team’s popular Shark Tracker App. Mary Lee, named for Fischer’s mother, has over 101,000 followers.
Unlike many traditional expeditions, OCEARCH also makes all the data it gathers open source. Any researcher who wants to can use the information from the over 200 animals the team has tagged, as long as they promise to publish a paper.
Once the crowd was aboard M/V OCEARCH, there was a lot of waiting and watching. The high school students spent much of the sunny morning catching mackerel. They pulled out one after the other to be used as shark bait. The teachers used the fishing as an opportunity to give an impromptu biology lesson.
One student wearing a navy shirt featuring Katharine the shark flipped a small piece of mackerel up in the air as he listened to the anatomy discussion. Another student dissected a fish on the top of one of the ship’s bait boxes.
“Do the mamas eat their babies, since you say the sharks are constantly hungry?” one of the students asked, prompting laughter from some of the other students. The group then debated the merits of fish scales before the conversation devolved into a heated debate about Pokémon.
“Fish on,” a scientist called out. People came to the rails to see what they’d caught but seemed disappointed when it was just more mackerel.
Our CNN crew headed out on the SAFE boat to get more footage of the OCEARCH ship, at least until our mission to bring Fischer back to the Coast Guard.
Fischer jumped down with practiced ease from the ship’s high deck onto the SAFE boat, and we zoomed back toward the Coast Guard vessel.
“Hello,” Fischer called out. “It’s always great to see our hard-working men and women of the Coast Guard out here. Thank you for all that you do,” he said with the smile of a trained diplomat. They spoke briefly about the incident with the buoy and then something unexpected happened.
“I’ve got a question for you,” the Coast Guardsman called.
“Of course, anything. What can I answer?” Fischer asked.
“Do you ever let other people come out on your boat?” he asked.
“Of course. If you would be interested, we’d love to have you on board here.” In a gesture of nautical networking, Fischer leaned over the deck and stretched to hand a business card to the men in the military boat. “That has my personal cell, so you can call me, and we’ll set something up.”
“My girlfriend really likes sharks,” the captain said. “And she loves your work.”
“Well, she can come, too,” Fischer added.
And with that, the Coast Guard captain pulled something from behind his back and chucked it into Fischer’s hands. It’s an OCEARCH baseball cap.
“Would you sign that for her?” The guys on the Coast Guard boat laughed.
“Sure,” Fischer said. “Let me go back and get a permanent marker.” Always ready to seize the moment and spread his shark-saving gospel, he came back with half a dozen caps and signed each one for a grateful crew.
Later that evening, after dropping off all the visitors, Fischer and his team achieved the goal of their expedition — and made history.
They caught a baby great white, and named it Montauk. The female weighed in at 50 pounds and was only 4 foot 6 inches long. This young of the year got tagged and has been zooming up and down the Long Island coast ever since.
The next day, the crew caught Hudson, a 5-foot-1-inch male, one of their first, who weighs a little over 66 pounds. He, too, has been swimming back and forth along the coast. It’s a tantalizing trail of data and potential research, placing Fischer one step closer to saving these beautiful animals.