Scientists Plan To Study Great White Shark ‘Cafe’ In Pacific

Scientists plan to study a region of the Pacific known as the 'white shark cafe' using a new and innovative camera system.

Researchers are planning to deploy a specialized camera system in the coming months in an effort to understand why great white sharks meet at a specific spot in the Pacific Ocean each year, which has been dubbed the “white shark cafe.”

The region is located roughly halfway between Mexico and Hawaii, as U.S. News and World Report notes, and white sharks congregate there each winter. Researchers are aware that the area is an aggregation site for the species, but they don’t know why the white sharks are drawn there. Once they arrive, the animals make a series of repeated deep dives, and while scientists have speculated that the sharks could be either feeding or mating, the reasons behind their behavior remain a mystery.

Enter shark expert Sal Jorgensen of California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium, who plans to lift the veil on the white shark cafe by affixing a specially designed camera system to a white shark. Similar to cameras that have been deployed at other sites in the world, this “shark cam” will be mounted to the dorsal fin of a great white, allowing researchers to enter the cafe in a way that otherwise wouldn’t be available to them.

According to Jorgensen, significant challenges lie ahead for the research team. He likened deploying the camera to a “mission to Mars,” but noted that action is necessary in order to advance scientific understanding and reveal the secrets of the white shark cafe.

“It’s easy for a biologist like myself to dream up questions we’d like answered with technology, but somebody has to actually push the envelope and make that happen.”

Remote camera technology is quickly opening the world of the great white shark to researchers in ways that were never before possible. In many respects, the species is poorly understood, and scientists are still at a loss regarding where the sharks mate and rear their young. Shark researchers hadn’t even witnessed everyday behaviors like sleeping in great whites, though very recently that process was revealed in dramatic fashion.

Tracking a large white shark nicknamed Emma off the coast of Mexico’s Guadalupe Island, a research team that included Dr. Greg Skomal of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries was able to affix a tag to her dorsal fin, which could then be followed by a pair of robotic submersibles. Those robots carried an array of underwater cameras that allowed the team to document Emma as evening fell and she began moving southward into a stiff current. As the research team watched, the shark’s behavior changed; Emma moved closer to shore and slowed down. Her lower jaw began to open, and the shark entered a near catatonic state. Though resting, Emma was unable to fully stop swimming. Like all other great white sharks, were she ever to do that, a lack of water passing over her gills would cause her to sink to the bottom and die from oxygen deprivation.

Jorgensen and his team have been working to refine their camera with a series of one-to-five day tests that have taken place in coastal waters. In December or January, the team will travel to either the white shark cafe or a nearby area known as the Red Triangle (located near the coast of Northern California and extending from Bodega Bay north of San Francisco, and beyond the Farallon Islands, as KCBS notes) in order to deploy it in the field. Once submerged, they hope the camera will open up the undersea world of the great white shark in new and fascinating ways heretofore unseen.

[Photo by Elias Levy — Own Work via Flickr | Cropped and Resized | CC BY 2.0]