In search of scalloped hammerheads

Mission Overview

Thanks to the Moore Charitable Foundation and Paul G. Allen Philanthropies, we headed to San Salvador in the Bahamas in search of endangered scalloped hammerhead sharks. Although a shark sanctuary, there are few data showing the existence of scalloped hammerheads in Bahamian waters. On 840 baited remote underwater video surveys (BRUVs) previously completed in the Bahamas by our team, no scalloped hammerheads were documented. Anecdotal accounts of scalloped hammerheads from local dive shops and fishers sparked our interest to investigate further.  From our core research team were Florida International University’s Dr. Demian Chapman and Gina Clementi, as well as Dalhousie University’s Taylor Gorham. Joining them were FIU researchers Dr. Yannis Papastamatiou, Dr. Bautisse Postaire, and Megan Kelley as well as photographer Andy Mann, free-diver Trevor Bacon, Captain Scott Genereux, first mate Joey Salomone, journalist Amaro Pablo-Gómez, and Pew Charitable Trusts conservationist Maximiliano Bello. Using BRUVs, dive surveys, and environmental DNA (eDNA) collection, the team had their sight set on confirming the presence of scalloped hammerheads in San Salvador.

Day 1

With energies still high, we decided to start the trip off with BRUVs. After completing eight deployments, we headed in for the night to enjoy dinner together and test out our new eDNA sampling equipment. But, as luck would have it, the boat we were using to set BRUVs had a mechanical issue, taking away dinner while it was practically right under our noses. That feeling must be what it’s like to be a shark not able to get the bait in our cages! After a couple of hours waiting safely at sea for assistance, we finally returned to our home boat, the Lady G. With full stomachs, we headed to the deck to collect eDNA samples. After spotting lemon sharks and one southern stingray swimming around the boat, we decided to call it a day – a very successful one!

Dr. Postaire (left) carefully drops the Niskin bottle over the side of the boat to collect water that was later filtered for eDNA. Back in the laboratory he will use genetics to try to look for sharks and rays. He will likely find the lemon shark that was swimming around the boat, pictured on the right.

Day 2

Today, it happened! Yannis and Megan spotted a scalloped hammerhead immediately after a dive and right before a BRUV retrieval. Although not filmed by the BRUV, Yannis was able to capture a video of it pooping, seen below. We completed nine BRUVs today and sampled for eDNA at three sites.

Day 3

Diving and BRUVs continued, with our second scalloped hammerhead sighting.

Diver Megan Kelley seen with a Nassau grouper. Photo credit: Andy Mann

Day 4

Taylor and Bautisse sampled another four sites for eDNA while the rest of the team went to explore a seamount. Sighted were silky sharks, oceanic whitetip sharks, three whales, and a tiger shark on a drifting pelagic BRUV.

A curious silky shark investigates the team. Photo credit: Andy Mann

Day 5

Edd Brooks from the Cape Eleuthera Institute joined the team. We were slowed down by strong wind and rain today, but we didn’t let that dampen our spirits. Three BRUVs were completed and a pod of dolphins swam around us for 30 minutes, playing with corals, eating gobies in the sand, and chasing barracuda.

Day 6

The talented Andy Mann filmed a few staged BRUVs today (check out some of the resulting footage on our homepage), while the science team completed three BRUVs and sampled five sites for eDNA. Edd took some of the team to the mangroves where they successfully caught a juvenile lemon shark for a tissue sample.

A Caribbean reef shark swims past our staged BRUV, allowing photographer Andy Mann to capture this stunning moment on camera.

Day 7

Our trip has come to end. Due to prevailing winds and because both our Niskin bottle and pump for filtering water broke, we decided to end the trip early. After 26 coral reef BRUVs completed, one pelagic BRUV set, two deep BRUVs set, 21 eDNA samples collected, and sightings of scalloped hammerheads, we can call this a successful mission!

And we’re off! Photo credit: Bautisse Postaire 

Another day, another milestone

Collaborator Spotlight: Marine Research Centre, Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, Maldives

Funded by Vulcan, Inc. and the Pew Global Shark Campaign, the labs of Drs Demian Chapman and Mark Meekan headed to sample the Maldives in May 2016. Back in 2015, both Global FinPrint researchers were introduced to the Marine Research Centre, Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture through Khadeeja Ali, a government employee, thanks to a meeting held by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Khadeeja had the opportunity to join the research expedition in the Maldives and learn how to set baited remote underwater videos. One of our ongoing missions for this collaboration is to continue Khadeeja’s training and further her education. In doing so, she will acquire research experience that will benefit the Maldivian government and help them continue to make informed conservation decisions. She will be applying to work as a Masters student in Dr. Demian Chapman’s lab at Florida International University this summer.

The teams successfully sampled five reefs, and the results will update the estimate of the economic value of reef sharks and shark diving to the economy of the Maldives. The Maldives is a progressive leader for shark conservation, as they recently headed the successful proposal to list silky sharks on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade of Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

Marine Research Centre, Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, Maldives
Marine Research Centre, Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture, Maldives

The mandate entrusted to the Marine Research Centre by the President’s Office (Letter No: 1-D/30/99/15 of 21 February 1999) are:

  • Plan, coordinate and conduct scientific research on marine resources of the country.
  • To undertake marine research directed at the conservation, enhancement and management of the marine environment in general and for fisheries exploitation in particular
  • Disseminate knowledge to the government and to the public with the objective of creating public awareness about the fisheries and the marine environment.
  • Study ways and means, which will increase the fisheries sector’s contribution to the economy of the country.
  • Conduct resource surveys in selected Areas within the country.
  • Compile and implement a database, holding data as well as scientific information on marine resources.
  • Undertake research on technological innovations, which will promote the rational utilisation of the marine resources. This also involves the introduction of these technologies to the fishing industry.
  • Publish research findings and reference materials with the objective of creating public awareness about the marine environment.

These single ladies don’t need a man

Publication specs

Title: Facultative parthenogenesis in a critically endangered wild vertebrate

Authors: Andrew Fields, Kevin Feldheim, Gregg Poulakis, Demian Chapman

Journal: Current Biology

Year: 2015

The Internet exploded last year with news of a vertebrate capable of producing offspring without sex. Billions of people across the globe tuned in to learn about the smalltooth sawfish’s newly discovered ability. The study was led by our lead principal investigator, Dr. Demian Chapman, and his Ph.D. student, Andrew Fields. This ability, scientifically known as facultative parthenogenesis, where animals that generally need a male to produce offspring can do so without one, is not a new scientific concept. In fact, it has been discovered in many captive vertebrates like birds, reptiles, sharks, and more recently rays. So what’s so novel about it? Smalltooth sawfish are a type of batoid, or ray, that are critically endangered and in 2007 were among the first elasmobranchs to receive international trade regulations by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Since the 1960s, these rays have seen a population decline of about 95% due to habitat loss, overfishing, bycatch, and target capture – where their rostrum, or snout, was sold as curio, aka a bizarre object usually used for home decoration. Smalltooth sawfish are currently only found in Southwest Florida and parts of the Bahamas. This study provided the first evidence of facultative parthenogenesis in the wild and it may be more common than previously thought, particularly in populations on the verge of extinction. But don’t get too excited – there is no scientific evidence of this phenomenon occurring in mammals.

Bahamas Mission 2016

In 2016, the Chapman lab sampled six reefs in the Bahamas, thanks to the Moore Bahamas Foundation, Cape Eleuthera Institute, and the International SeaKeepers Society. In collaboration with these organizations, student Gina Clementi, project coordinator Jasmine Valentin-Albanese, and volunteer Jessica Quinlan set a total of 278 baited remote underwater videos (BRUVs), which produced amazing data and footage from the shark sanctuary.





Our lead principal investigator Demian Chapman and social media manager Katie Flowers accompanied this mission by participating in local outreach sessions led by the Bahamas Reef Environment Education Foundation (BREEF). You can find their blog post about this mission, originally published on, below.



© Cay Focus Photography


Life’s Better in the Bahamas Shark Sanctuary

Most of you have probably heard it somewhere before, the iconic piece of information shared tirelessly and sometimes incorrectly attributed to nothing but shark finning, “100 million sharks are killed every year”. Although this is an alarming number, it’s actually better to look at the range from the larger study estimating exploitation rates of sharks: 63 million – 273 million sharks killed annually. One hundred million is thus a conservative estimate, and the shark fin trade is not fully responsible for those landings. Data aside, the more important question now is what can we do about these losses?

The answer may partially lie in the Bahamas. Before the study mentioned above even came out, the island nation made a progressive choice by fully protecting its sharks from fishing in 2011. Bahamians had put two and two together: many shark species in their waters live there either partially or year-round, and these sharks are worth big bucks alive – a 2007 estimate of $78M US in the Bahamas alone (Report of the Bahamas Ministry of Tourism). The Bahamas is one of the best places in the Caribbean and arguably the world to dive with sharks, which might not be the case if populations were under high fishing pressure.

Dr. Demian Chapman, a marine biologist and shark expert formally at Stony Brook University’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences and now at Florida International University’s College of Arts, Sciences & Education leads a global study of sharks and rays called Global FinPrint. It is a project that partially stems from the 2013 study by asking some of the next most valuable questions including: where on the world’s coral reefs do we find many sharks and rays and why are they there? The project sets GoPro cameras on the seafloor to estimate shark and ray abundance and diversity. So far, the Bahamas has been one of the leaders in this study (see video), with sharks and rays on almost every survey, including several with endangered great hammerheads. This project along with a tagging expedition in its fourth year have certainly made life better for sharks in the Bahamas, thanks to Louis Bacon’s Moore Bahamas Foundation.

The Bahamas has emerged as a leader in shark conservation, and the sanctuary could be a model to replicate for countries looking to protect their sharks and boost their economy. Extending this same protection to rays, the lesser-known cousins of sharks who play their own vital roles in the ocean’s ecosystem, would make sense. The Bahamas is one of the few places on earth where you can find the critically endangered smalltooth sawfish, a ray that is often confused with a shark. Their populations have seen about a 95% decline since the 1960s. Yet these sawfish are not granted protection in the country, nor are the other species of rays that could bring in even more tourism money. It is the belief of Global FinPrint that the Bahamas can take the next innovative step to make them a world leader in shark and ray conservation by granting rays full protection.   


Smalltooth sawfish Photo: Katie Flowers


White sharks: finding mates nearby

Photo: Yannis Papastamatiou

Photo: Yannis Papastamatiou

Publication specs

Title: Genetic Diversity of White Sharks, Carcharodon carcharias, in the Northwest Atlantic and Southern Africa
Authors: Shannon J. O’Leary, Kevin A. Feldheim, Andrew T. Fields, Lisa J. Natanson, Sabine Wintner, Nigel Hussey, Mahmood S. Shivji, and Demian D. Chapman 
Journal: Journal of Heredity
Year: 2015

Would you want to swim across the ocean to find a mate? Probably not, and neither do great white sharks. A recent study showed that white sharks are breeding on the side of the Atlantic Ocean where they were born despite their tendency to venture into the open ocean. The results revealed two distinct populations of white sharks, separated by the vast Atlantic Ocean. This implies that effective conservation measures would be separate and local, both in the Southern African nations and in the Northwest Atlantic. Luckily, white sharks are federally protected in both locations, which means this study’s findings validate current protection measures.

Photo: Katie Flowers

Photo: Katie Flowers