Every once in a while, the ocean presents us with something truly amazing – whether it’s a crazy storm or a record catch, these events serve to remind us of the awesome power and beauty of the sea.
It was early June, and we were conducting another day of our continual catch and release shark surveys in the Florida Keys. In general, April, May and June tend to be some of the heaviest months for large sharks in the Keys, a time when these coasts are visited by the “semi-pelagics” that are following the fishes that spawn offshore. As our team hauled in the final drumline (shark-friendly, passive fishing device) of the day, something big tugged on the other end, almost pulling our team into the water.
“It looks bull-y,” remarked Dr. Neil Hammerschlag.
“I see the football-y shape,” I responded, looking 70 feet down on the shadow coming towards me.
Turns out we were right, it was indeed a bull shark – Carcharhinus leucas – a large female. As we brought her closer to the boat, it soon became evident that this wasn’t just any bull—she was over 8 feet long, and was thicker than any shark I have seen in the Caribbean (including 14 foot tigers and 12 foot hammerheads).
Bull sharks are a fascinating species, and our tagging experiments tell us that they are constantly on the move, timing their movements with prey such as tarpon and ladyfish in the Everglades, while also alternating to deeper oceanic locations for mating and birthing. Of the 80 or so bull sharks we have tagged and released in the last several years (one of the more rare species we encounter), most are around 6-6.5 feet, a size representing a mature adult. This bull shark dwarfed every other bull I have seen, and there is no doubt in my mind this bull is part of a very elite club in Florida-and probably Western Atlantic. After measuring her length and sampling her blood for reproductive hormones and stress parameters, she was released in great condition, swimming away to reclaim her seat on the throne of apex marine predators.
Reports of the tagging of the massive bull made national news in a few days, with stories commenting that the animal could have weighed up to 1,000 pounds. While we didn’t have a scale on board, this fish was every bit of 800-850 pounds. There is a chance she could have been close to 1,000 pounds, perhaps making it the largest bull ever caught. And while we will never know her true weight, it would be a slap in nature’s face to ever sacrifice an animal this size for a record book. When the news reports spread of this amazing catch and tag, I was excited – knowing it would be seen by many fishermen worldwide, hopefully serving as an example of not needing to sacrifice large animals to still get an amazing experience. And it is great that many anglers are subscribing to this conservation ethic. Pictures last forever, and so will my memory putting my arms around her belly and feeling truly humbled and impressed.
Austin Gallagher is a PhD student at the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy at the University of Miami. He is also a research assistant for the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation program, focusing his doctoral studies on shark conservation biology.