'Pit stops' help scientists track sharks

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Scientists are using a Formula One-style pit stop to attach tracking devices to Great White Sharks.

The new system involves temporarily removing a shark from the sea and fitting it with a satellite-tracking device. Like mechanics servicing a racing car, the researchers work as quickly as possible; their speed helps to protect them and the sharks from harm.

So far, seven sharks, up to 11.5ft long and weighing more than 800lb, have been tagged off the coast of South Africa, a hot spot for the Great White. Each shark is baited with a hook and line, and quickly hoisted into a specially made cradle. Two vets then keep the creature breathing by pouring oxygen-rich water from a hose into its mouth.

While that is happening, scientists attach a tracking device to the shark's dorsal fin. Before the shark is released, the team administers medicine to speed its recovery.

Dr Ramon Bonfil, one of the tagging team from the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York, said: "We have gone to incredible lengths to make sure that our sharks are treated with the most rigorous standards of safety and ethics.

"Our sharks behave like tamed kittens once in the cradle, hardly ever moving or noticing that we are working on them like the pit crew of a racing car. Then they swim away strongly upon release."

Dr Bonfil said the sharks spent only three to seven minutes out of the water, resulting in little trauma. Tracking afterwards showed that the animals were unfazed by the experience.

One shark swam all the way to Mozambique and back again, a distance of more than 2,000 miles. Six months after being tagged, the creature's tracking device continues to work.

The Great White Shark is a protected species in South Africa. But Dr Bonfil's team believes sharks often travel to other countries' waters and need international protection.

Tagging will provide a better idea of where the sharks go and what threats they face. But the tags cost about £2,000 each, so the scientists are looking for sponsors. "This cutting-edge research is expensive," Dr Bonfil said. "We need the support to make it happen."