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Southampton Marine and Maritime Institute

Swimming with sharks - A vulnerable predator

Ocean and Earth Science Southampton PhD student Christopher Bird now admits chasing a shark through the sea off the Bahamas wasn’t the most sensible thing to do.

“I was following a two metre long lemon shark on a dive when suddenly it turned round and headed for me. I flattened myself against a rock, it swam slowly past and stared at me, then turned round, swam back looking at me again and went on its way.”

The close encounter while working in the mangrove swamps at the Bimini Biological Field Station didn’t put Chris off studying ‘the ultimate predator’; he has now embarked on a postgraduate research degree at Ocean and Earth Science Southampton, at the National Oceanography Centre Southampton (NOCS), working with Dr Clive Trueman to investigate the trophic and spatial ecology of deep-water sharks in the North Atlantic ocean.

Looking back to his childhood, Chris recalls he was always fascinated by wildlife and especially sharks: “Growing up in Cheshire, we often used to go to Chester Zoo and the Blue Planet Aquarium nearby and, of course, I loved David Attenborough’s TV programmes. I’ve always been interested in finding out about things, science gave me the answer.”

Getting up close and personal with his research
Chris Bird PhD Student, OES

After A levels in Maths, Physics, Chemistry and Biology, he headed to the University of Manchester to study Biology but soon switched to Zoology. The highlight of his BSc was two months in the rainforest of Ecuador and another close encounter with wildlife in the Payamino River, a tributary of the Amazon: "We were in the water examining amazing species of fish when another student called from the bank that we should get out, she could see this giant snake heading for us. It's fortunate she saw it, it turned out to be one of the most dangerous in the region."

Following graduation with first class honours and a dissertation on the metabolic rate of rainbow trout, Chris decided to train for his diving qualifications and spent some time in Egypt before putting his skills to good use at the Bimini Biological Field Station, Bahamas. While there, he found out about a masters research degree in Marine Biology just about to start at Plymouth University, where he could specialise in sharks for the first time. "I ended up studying with some of the most important researchers in shark ecology, Professor David Sims, who also has links with Southampton, and Dr Nuno Queiroz who's based in Portugal. We investigated how environmental conditions such as ocean fronts could affect shark movements," he says.

As he finished his MSc, Chris seized another opportunity: "I had an idyllic month in the Seychelles tagging sharks for a project to track their movements around a remote atoll. We caught about 50, embedded the devices under their skin and then released them, we then set up beacons to work out where they were."

Turning his hobby into his career
Chris Bird

By now, he had realised his future lay in understanding more about these amazing creatures through a PhD. "I know I'm lucky to make my hobby my career," he admits. "I ended up with two offers and had to make a difficult choice. While one research project at Swansea was all about tracking, I would have been working with vultures and my love of sharks won out. Besides, I knew NOCS was one of the best places in the world for marine biology so I said yes to Ocean and Earth Science Southampton."

Chris realises not everyone is as keen on sharks as he is and is passionate about spreading the word about the perils they face. He encountered the shark finning industry for himself while in the Seychelles and was disgusted by the practice of catching sharks, slicing off their fins for the profitable shark fin soup trade and throwing the creatures overboard to die. He is also concerned about new trawling methods that scrape the sea bed removing all living things including deep sea sharks "like a bulldozer through the rain forest." Chris writes a blog and uses social media to get the conservation message across.

Investigating the trophic and spatial ecology of deep-water sharks in the North Atlantic ocean
Chris's research

Earlier in his career, Chris worked for a leading media production company that specialises in wildlife productions. Three months as a runner for Icon Films sparked an interest in science communication he intends to develop at Southampton. "I want to explain why we need sharks. They play a cruicial role in many food chains and are powerful predators, but their populations are extremely fragile and vulnerable. If sharks populations are significantly reduced by extensive fishing, this could have significant consequences on the stability and health of many marine ecosystems”. Our research at Southampton will tell us more about them and that's important. People need to care about sharks as much as they do about tigers."

Chris works at Ocean and Earth Science with Dr Clive Trueman in the University of Southampton Marine Isotope & Ecology Lab (SUMIE), and he will be investigating the trophic and spatial ecology of deep-water sharks living between 500m and 2000m in the North Atlantic ocean. Using a wide range of techniques and natural tracers, Chris's research aims to uncover some of the mysteries surrounding shark species that we know relatively little about. Keep an eye out for their website which will be live very soon.

Follow Chris on Twitter: @SharkDevocean

Or follow his blog: http://sharkdevocean.wordpress.com/

Follow Chris:

On Twitter: @SharkDevocean

Or follow his blog: http://sharkdevocean.wordpress.com/

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