High school students and teachers were tagging juvenile scalloped hammerhead sharks as part of a National Science Foundation teaching project over the summer. Last Saturday, they were fishing in a spot near the Kaneohe Marine Corps Base. Below, the tag on the dorsal fin can be seen on a shark about to be released.

Let's play tag

High school students are worked
with marine researchers to help
track scalloped hammerhead
sharks in Kaneohe Bay

By Diana Leone

Punahou sophomore Jenny Hazlehurst carefully threaded a piece of squid onto an inch-long hook and dropped her line into Kaneohe Bay.

Around her, three other fishers in the Boston whaler did the same.

Then they waited.

When the shark bites, said wildlife ecologist Alex Handler, "You'll feel a little tug, like doink, doink, doink on the line."

Last summer, there were times when the high school students helping Handler tag and release scalloped hammerhead sharks in the bay pulled in as many as 40 sharks in an hour-and-twenty-minute fishing session.

Philip Regina, 17, a Campbell High senior, recalled that in one session he pulled in 20 sharks himself, earning a reputation among his peers as a shark magnet.

Last Saturday, the pace was a little slower in this particular boat. Within sight of the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology on Coconut Island, a crew of three high school students, two science teachers and Handler landed only six sharks during their first fishing session, but landed 14 in a second session.

In the central and north portions of Kaneohe Bay, two more boats of teachers and students had equal or better luck. The total number of sharks tagged that day was 89, Handler said.

Handler and shark biologist Kanesa Duncan jointly coordinated a National Science Foundation project over the summer, in which 46 Oahu high school students helped them with Duncan's doctoral research and got a taste of being a scientist.

With additional help from NSF teaching fellow Sheldon Plentovich, Handler and Duncan created a science curriculum for the students. Last weekend, they were sharing it with six Oahu high school teachers in a two-day workshop on Coconut Island and in the waters of Kaneohe Bay.

In a bit of a role reversal, nine of the high school students who had worked on the project returned to help teach the teachers, who in turn will use the methods in their science classrooms.

"This is extremely exciting, what the students have done," said Laura Duffy, 36, a Kamehameha and Chaminade science teacher.

"They've taken doctoral student research and broken it down to where high school students are doing it. ... When you allow them to experience the research, they can come up with questions the principal investigator may not have thought of," Duffy said.

Duncan's doctorate is a study of scalloped hammerheads in Kaneohe Bay, the largest enclosed bay in Hawaii, which is known to be a major pupping ground, or nursery, for the breed.

It's been estimated that 5,000 to 10,000 scalloped hammerheads are born there each summer, with most living a year in the bay before moving to deeper ocean water, Handler said.

The last in-depth study of the bay's hammerheads was done in 1971, Duncan said.

Before this summer, she had volunteers help her catch and release sharks at a much slower pace. But with the high school students' help, the project tagged more than 2,000 sharks.

University of Hawaii Lab School junior Emilia Wiggins, 16, said she appreciated "the opportunity to help with actual research, furthering research of something that's close to us." It was great, she said, "to go onto the ocean and deal with the sharks we'd been talking about in the classroom."

Hazlehurst said she's considering a career in marine science and jumped at the chance to participate this summer.

Regina said he plans to go into journalism or communications, but still valued the experience of studying the sharks and meeting new people.

Ralph Dykes, 62, Punahou science teacher, said he's interested in research and "I want to learn how to teach the kids with new methods."

Though he couldn't do a full-blown shark-tagging project with his students, some of the methodologies could be applied to catch-and-release projects with freshwater fish, Dykes said.

In Handler's boat last Saturday, sharks varied in size from 21 inches and just over a pound to a little more than 2 feet and 3.5 pounds. The biggest was one that had been caught and tagged earlier this summer.

When each shark was hooked, the fisher rapidly pulled up the 40-foot line, hand over hand, until the flipping gray shape of the shark could be seen in the water.

With a deft motion born of practice, Handler lifted each shark into the boat. There, a student held it still while he extracted the baited hook from its mouth.

After gently rinsing the shark back and forth in the water for a breath of oxygen, Handler measured its length and weight and affixed a small plastic tag with a number on the shark's dorsal fin.

The time and location of the catch were duly marked down by the expedition's record-keeper, Wiggins.

Within two minutes, each shark was back over the side of the boat and swam out of sight, having contributed to greater human understanding of their kind.

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