CBC Windsor
University of Windsor communications officer Steve Fields will spend eight days as a working member of the crew aboard a scientific research vessel in the Arctic
Steve Fields will spend eight days as a working member of the crew aboard a scientific research vessel in the Arctic.

Fields of View

Tagging Greenland sharks an incredible experience


SCOTT INLET, NUNAVUT - I can now officially cross "catching and tagging a Greenland shark in the frigid waters off Baffin Island" from my bucket list.

Between Tuesday and Wednesday, we caught a total of 17 Greenland sharks and I had the distinct honour of participating in doing the actual field work on one of them, which was just about one of the craziest things I've ever done.

The actual work-up on one of the animals is an amazing operation to observe. The crew on the ship pull the sharks up on the starboard side from the long lines that had been set the day before. Then they launch the Zodiac, and the three occupants pull up to the ship and tie the animal to the side of the smaller craft, and then take it out to the open water behind the boat.

Those at the bow and the stern of the Zodiac hold the animal in position and help measure the length, and then Nigel - the real star of the whole operation - goes to work. After recording the gender, he deftly implants the acoustic tag into the fish. With bare hands, in water that's about 0 degrees C, he uses a scalpel to make an inch-long incision in the shark. He yells out the tag's serial and identification numbers to the person recording the data on the ship's deck, sticks it into the fish, and then sutures the incision closed. He clips a small tissue sample for genetic analysis, collects a blood sample, pulls the hook out of its mouth, inserts a marker tag and then the two assistants release the fish. Depending on conditions and any complications that arise, the entire process can take anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes.

One of the eight sharks we caught Tuesday had been eaten by others by the time we retrieved it and had to be thrown back. Another managed to escape from the line, so in all, we recorded data from six sharks on our first day of fishing. Two of them were "babies" and were small enough to pull up and work-up on the ship's deck. The other four were done in the water off the side of the Zodiac.

For most of the time, I was on the deck recording the data. Then Kevin Hedges, one of the DFO scientists on board unexpectedly asked me if I wanted a turn in the Zodiac for our fifth shark. I jumped at the opportunity, but my heart started racing and the adrenalin began pumping immediately.

We pulled up alongside the 2.56 metre beast and Nigel told me to reach under it and tie up the front end. I was wearing thick rubber gloves, rain slickers, my winter coat, a hoodie and thermal underwear, but even with all that gear, the shock of the cold water on my hands and forearms was immediate. Not being a nautical man, getting the rope underneath the shark's body and a proper knot tied to it was a bit of a misadventure, but eventually we got it secured to the side of the Zodiac.

When we pulled out to open water, we turned the fish over so its belly side was up to take a measurement. I somehow managed to get the tape measure caught in the shark's mouth when we were trying to record its length and had to fight a little to get it out of its teeth. Nigel told me that's never happened before, and so I quickly became the subject of some good-natured ridicule.

By the time I got back up on deck, my hands and forearms were drenched and sore from holding the shark in position. The entire experience gave me a whole new sense of appreciation and admiration for what Nigel does on a regular basis.

And as memento from the entire experience, Nigel even saved the hook from the first shark I helped tag and gave it to me as a souvenir.