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Vicky Vasquez is a graduate student at the Pacific Shark Research Center. She is studying the spatial and temporal distribution of Soupfin sharks (Galeorhinus galeus) in San Francisco Bay. She finds this work really exciting because the Golden Gate Bridge is a world-recognized icon yet we don’t have a full understanding of the life below its waters. She is also the deputy director or the Ocean Research Foundation ( ORF). To follow Vicky’s shark adventures check out her TWITTER page.
1. What is your favorite species of shark and why?
My favorite species of shark is the Largetooth Cookie Shark (Isistius plutodus) because they have so many unique adaptations. They have the largest teeth relative to body size of any shark species in the world; they glow in the dark as a form of countershading; and they are ectoparasites which means they usually don’t kill their prey, they just leave a scar. I’m also a big fan of Pancake Sharks also called Flatsharks, these common names are used to reference the relatives to sharks which are rays and skates.
2. What is one species of shark you would like to see in the wild?
There are two groups of sharks that glow in the dark, these are the Kitefin Sharks (family Dalatidae) and the Lanternsharks (family Etmopteridae). I would love to journey down to the deep sea and observe one of these species glowing in the wild.
3. What started your fascination with sharks?
My fascination with sharks started during a five day fishing trip with my dad. We went to Guadalupe Island off the coast of Baja California to fish for Yellowfin Tuna (Thunnus albacares). While we were there, Great White Sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) came to the boat. From all I heard about Great White Sharks and from all I had seen on TV, I expected these sharks to be extremely aggressive and very scary. My experience was completely different from that and yet it had every bit of the excitement! So here’s what happened…
I was in the midst of catching what may have been the largest fish of the trip! This was exciting because the largest fish wins the jackpot, a cash prize. I had been fighting the fish for over an hour. It was so strong that the entire time I was reeling in the fishing line, my dad had to hold on to the back of my pants so I wouldn’t fall overboard. I was getting tired and ready to give up but I finally saw color. This meant my fish was close to the surface and I was moments away from being the official jackpot winner! However, a Great White Shark had other plans. Right then is when one of the crew members yelled, “SHAAARK!” He wasn’t yelling because he was scared, the crew member was warning all the anglers that they had competition in the water. That was the moment the shark set its eyes on my fish. A crew member ran towards me, grabbed the fishing rod out of my hands, and dropped the line in a last ditch effort to sink my fish past the approaching jaws. I watched the shark slowly swim by and I felt relieved. On TV there’s always so much thrashing and violence that I thought there was no way the shark had gotten a hold of my catch. It turns out I was wrong. When I finally pulled up my fish, all that was left was the head. Instead of being disappointed of my wasted effort, I was impressed. That’s because the head I was staring at was still moving! With what seemed like no effort, the shark’s bite force was so powerful that neurons in the bitten fish head were still firing. Even though predators can sometimes seem scary, what I realized was that sharks are just trying to be good at what they do. I also realized that I had a lot to learn about sharks and what it means to be a predator. After this fishing trip, I decided that I wanted to focus my interests in animal behavior more specifically towards sharks and their roles within their ecosystems.
4. Can you tell us a little about your current research/work?
As a student at the Pacific Shark Research Center at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, I study Lost Sharks. ‘Lost Sharks’ is a term coined by my professor, Dr. David Ebert, to bring attention to lesser known and undiscovered species. Last year, I helped with the discovery of a brand new species of shark called the Ninja Lanternshark (Etmopterus benchleyi). It’s a two-foot long glowing sharks and the first of its kind ever found off the Pacific coast of Central America.
I also helped design a citizen science project for a group of sharks not traditionally considered “Lost”. Hammerhead Sharks are iconic but their occurrence in Southern California is uncommon. My project hopes to reveal more information on the mysterious use of Southern California by Hammerhead Shark species but it can only work with help! Anyone can help by passing me information of any Hammerheads they see in California. However, being in the area is not the only way to support this work. Spreading the word to as many people as possible is also vital to the perseverance of this project. What’s up next for me is a study on the Lost Sharks of San Francisco Bay. These are species that often get out shined because most people associate San Francisco Bay with the rare, yet charismatic, Great White Shark. Leading up to this project however, there are no guarantees that the works will move forward. First, I have to do my “homework”. This homework includes writing up all my research plans, applying for funding and submitting permits.
5. Can you tell us what a day at work is like?
Most of my work days are spent in front of a computer. I read scientific publications, review data, and write a lot. I write e-mails, components of my thesis and science communication content. As I move forward in my career, I will also be spending more time writing grant proposals and reviewing the written work of other people. As one might notice at this point, I don’t spend as much time on the water as it may seem. However, the time I spend on the ocean is so rewarding (like when I work on a cage diving boat with Great White Sharks) that it’s always worth the time I spend inside. More so, a lot of people I know spend all of their time working inside and that makes me appreciate my situation.
6. What are some of the most challenging parts of your job? Most interesting?
The most challenging part of being a graduate student is self-discipline. As a student, I can work where ever I want. It’s as big of an advantage as it is a disadvantage. It’s really fun, like on sunny days when I work outside or when I find a spot inside with a beautiful view. However, working on my own takes a lot of focus and as I get older there isn’t always someone, like a parent, who makes sure I don’t get distracted. It’s really easy to lose focus and not even realize it right away. This means I have to be my own parent. What’s great though, is that being a student also means I get unexpected opportunities. For example, other students and I had the opportunity to assist in a biological survey during the partial demolition of the Oakland Bay Bridge. What this meant is that I got a front row seat to really big explosion!
7. Why is science so important for shark conservation?
Science is really important for shark conservation because it’s a tool that gives people are best clue of the past, it’s our most factual story of the present and our best predictor of the future. What’s most interesting is that there are many science disciplines used to answer many different issues of shark conservation. For example, my lab uses biology, taxonomy and math to help discover new species.
- Tagged: Deepsea sharks, Ninja Lantern Shark, save sharks, Shark education, Shark Research, Shark science, Sharks4kids