Photographs showing a raw festering wound on a shark that was hooked and released by researchers at the Farallon Islands in late 2009 have surfaced, igniting questions about a controversial tagging process and setting the shark research community aflame with accusations and counterattacks.
The images depict “Junior,” a great white shark that San Diego marine biologist Michael Domeier fitted with a “SPOT” tag and released on Oct. 29, 2009. During the procedure, which involved bringing the shark aboard a floating platform, the shark was accidentally hooked in the throat. Researchers performed an impromptu surgery using bolt clippers inserted through one of its gill slits to cut the hook, part of which was left in the animal’s throat when the scientists let it go. They also bolted a Smart Position or Temperature Transmitting (SPOT) satellite tag to the shark’s dorsal fin.
Junior was caught, tagged, and released within the boundaries of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, a federal zone where white shark protections include a prohibition on approaching within 164 feet of one of the animals. Though multiple scientists warned that Domeier’s hands-on approach to tagging great whites could injure such large, heavy fish, federal and state officials jointly green-lighted the project.
Questions immediately arose about Junior’s health following Domeier’s tagging operation. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) officials who oversaw Domeier’s permit assuaged concerns that the shark might have been seriously wounded.
A year later, Junior was not faring so well. Recently surfaced images, which were captured in October 2010 and leaked by an unknown source, show a gaunt animal wearing a SPOT tag in its fin and bearing a large exposed wound on the right side of its face. Multiple shark experts are blaming Domeier for Junior’s condition.
Just what caused the shark’s injury is not clear, however. Though Junior was hooked in the esophagus, his current wound is located just outside the right rear corner of his jaw.
When contacted for comment, Domeier, a marine biologist with more than 15 years of field experience, referred this reporter to the website of his nonprofit organization, Marine Conservation Science Institute, where he posted a statement in March saying the injury “was clearly inflicted by another white shark.” Such events are commonplace among great white sharks and, according to Domeier, can result in temporary weight loss of the injured animal. Domeier’s website also states that Junior has swum thousands of miles since the October 2010 photographs and was detected halfway between Hawaii and the mainland on March 23, 2011.
Many of Domeier’s critics support more traditional shark-tagging methods by which a hand-held lance is used to affix a transmitter to the flank of a free-swimming shark.
Sean Van Sommeran, founder of the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation in Santa Cruz, has opposed Domeier’s SPOT-tagging research since he began applying it to great whites several years ago in Mexican waters. In an email to the Weekly, Van Sommeran called Domeier’s methods “a huge leap backwards (overboard) for shark research conservation.”
And several critics are skeptical of Domeier’s explanation of Junior’s wounds. A source close to the photographers who saw Junior last October suspects the cable between the baited hook and the research vessel dislocated Junior’s jaw when the scientists winched the shark toward their boat.
Chris Hartzell, vice-president of the Monterey Audubon Society and an underwater photographer, also doubts another shark caused Junior’s injury. Hartzell believes the wound is technically an abscess, medically defined as inflamed area of disintegrating tissue.
“An abscess indicates a circulatory problem, possibly caused by damage to the skeletal system,” Hartzell said. Hartzell speculates that the floating buoy that became jammed in Junior’s mouth during his capture might have displaced the jaw’s joint.
Patric Douglas, who operates a shark-viewing tour company called Shark Diver and has dived with great whites for a decade, says the shark bites he has seen on other sharks tend to be clean-cut wounds.
But in the past week, two shark specialists have come forward with allegations that an established team of territorial great white shark researchers in Northern California shot the images of Junior in October and may have strategically released the most damning of them in an effort to sabotage Domeier’s research project, which has been featured on a National Geographic television series.
Mike Neumann, who has tagged sharks and runs a cage-diving outfit in Fiji called Beqa Adventure Diving, initially joined the chorus of protests against Domeier’s SPOT-tagging endeavor in late October 2009. Now, however, Neumann thinks “all accusations against Domeier (as the cause of Junior’s injuries) are pure speculation.”
The fact that Junior was hooked “way, way back in the throat” does not align with the nature of the injury to the shark’s face, Neumann says, and he points to photographs of Junior aboard Domeier’s boat (one of which is available at http://www.marinecsi.org/news-events/) in which no injuries to the shark’s jaw are visible.
Greg Barron, co-owner of Incredible Adventures, a Farallones great white shark viewing service, also has voiced the opinion that Domeier has been falsely victimized in a scheme to harm his reputation.
According to Mary Jane Schramm, a NOAA spokesperson, the 2010 images of Junior were submitted last October to NOAA officials along with video footage of the shark. Neumann wants this footage made public and believes that a closer look at Junior in his injured state could confirm or debunk Domeier’s claim that another shark attacked Junior and damaged his jaw.
“To me it appears very, very likely that (Junior’s) condition is not a result of Michael Domeier, and if that’s what the video might tell us, then let’s see it,” says Neumann, who considers SPOT-tagging a “brutal” means of studying sharks but says he remains undecided on what caused Junior’s injury.
“Let’s the see the video,” he says. “Once there is clarity on the nature of Junior’s wound, then we can talk about SPOT tags.”