How An Interview With A Shark Researcher Wound Up Starring A Shark

May 29, 2017
Originally published on June 1, 2017 10:34 am

Sharks have been swarming around southern California beaches for weeks. NPR wanted to know more about why, so we placed a call to Chris Lowe, a professor in marine biology and head of the Shark Lab at California State University at Long beach — or rather, we tried. Lowe was offshore on a boat trapping sharks to tag, and at the appointed time for our interview, Lowe had his hands full ... of shark.

Morning Edition producer Justin Richmond, who was on the boat with a microphone, delivered a play-by-play as Lowe and two of his students from Cal State Long Beach tugged on a net.

"They're literally catching a shark right now!" Justin said.

It was a great white shark — although not a big one. It was a baby, about six feet. The boat they were on was a 12-foot whaler.

The idea was to tug the shark alongside that little boat, then hoist it up on the deck of a bigger boat — yes, in an all-too-appropriate Jaws reference, there was a bigger boat — and there, the researchers quickly performed surgery, implanting tracking devices on and in the baby shark, so she could be studied later.

All this action was happening only about 30 feet from Long Beach, Calif. In that neighborhood, Justin said, everybody has been talking about the sharks right there in shallow water.

After Lowe gently lowered the baby shark back in the water, he was able to describe what he thinks is going on. Lowe says though these beaches have been hot spots of nurseries for white sharks, what is different now is global climate change.

"It's changing our ocean temperatures, it's changing our ocean currents," he says. "What it's doing is it's making conditions more favorable for some of these babies."

Los Angeles-area beaches are basically the nursery for white sharks in the northeast Pacific, he says. "And we need those sharks. They're really important in keeping our oceans healthy. So while the public always has some concerns about the fact that there are white sharks off their beaches, what they have to remember is that these are babies and they're coming to these beaches for the same reason they do: they want a safe place to hang out and enjoy life."

Lowe says that baby sharks are usually at least as afraid of people as we may be of them.

Morning Edition producer Justin Richmond and Morning Edition editor Amy Isackson and digital producer Heidi Glenn contributed to this story.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have a very close view this morning of the sharks that have been swarming around some Southern California beaches. Why would dozens of sharks turn up there in recent weeks? Chris Lowe studies them. So we placed a call - or we tried. Mr. Lowe was offshore shore on a boat, trapping sharks. So our producer, Justin Richmond, took a microphone to him on the boat. But at the appointed time for the interview, Lowe had his hands full of shark.

JUSTIN RICHMOND, BYLINE: Dude, it's Justin. They're literally catching a shark right now. Hang on (laughter).

INSKEEP: Sure. Is Dr. Lowe available?

RICHMOND: He's struggling with this thing.

INSKEEP: Justin Richmond gave us the play by play as Lowe and two of his students from Cal State, Long Beach tugged on a net.

RICHMOND: They have a shark in a net...

CHRIS LOWE: All right. Let's get the sling.

RICHMOND: ...That they just caught. It's struggling.

INSKEEP: A great white shark - although not a big one. It was a baby, about 6 feet long.

RICHMOND: Oh, he's got the tail. Dr. Lowe has the tail. The shark is - wow. Yeah, he does not want to come in (laughter). We're in about a 12-foot-long whaler right now.

INSKEEP: Justin, you better back up just a moment and describe the small boat you're in. Did you say a 12-foot boat?

RICHMOND: I'm in a 12-foot boat. And they're trying to pull in a 6-foot shark (laughter).

INSKEEP: You're going to need a bigger boat.

The idea was to tug the shark alongside that little boat and then hoist it up on the deck of a bigger boat. Yes, there was a bigger boat. And there, the researchers quickly performed surgery, implanting tracking devices on and in the baby shark so she could be studied later.

RICHMOND: I've got to say, too, I'm about 30 feet from my neighborhood. And so this is really disconcerting (laughter).

INSKEEP: Everything you've been describing has been happening, like, right on the beach.

RICHMOND: Right on the beach. I mean, as I look to my left, there's multimillion-dollar homes.

INSKEEP: I'm thinking you probably don't have one of the multimillion-dollar homes.

RICHMOND: No, no, no. I have a one-bedroom apartment. But, you know, I'm two blocks in. I'm surrounded by multimillion-dollar homes, Steve, and that's the way I like it.

INSKEEP: In that neighborhood, Justin said, everybody's been talking about the sharks right there in shallow water. Once researcher Chris Lowe had finished his work and gently lowered the baby shark back in the water, he was able to describe what he thinks is going on.

So how unusual is it to have so many sharks off of so many Los Angeles area beaches?

LOWE: Well, in a way, it's not that unusual. We know that these beaches have historically been hotspots for nurseries for white sharks. What is different is the number caused by global climate change. It's changing our ocean temperatures. It's changing our ocean currents. And as a result, it's making conditions more favorable for some of these babies.

INSKEEP: What is something you would like people on the beach watching you today to know about these sharks that you're tagging or other sharks they may encounter on a beach?

LOWE: Well, I think the most important part is that it's really cool to see these top predators come back. And we need those sharks. They're really important in keeping our oceans healthy. So while the public, you know, always has some, you know, concerns about the fact that there are white sharks off their beaches, what they have to remember is that these are babies. And they're coming to these beaches for the same reason they do. They want a safe place to hang out and enjoy life.

INSKEEP: Well, Chris Lowe, we'll let you get back to it then.

LOWE: All right. Thank you.

INSKEEP: And Chris Lowe says baby sharks are usually at least as afraid of people, as we may be of them. So while swimmers are being told to use caution, researchers who know what they're doing spent the day among them, in and out of the water, tagging sharks to study them as signs of a changing world.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEDRO SANTOS SONG, "AGUA VIVA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.