Able to lift 37 tons, the hydraulic lift had never been used on a marine animal before the great white studies—conducted aboard the research vessel Ocean—began in 2007.
Originally used to lift a power yacht on and off the 126-foot (38-meter) ship, the elevator was retrofitted with substantial railings to haul SUV-size great whites from waters off Mexico's Guadalupe Island (map) for study.
Data from satellite tracking tags fitted to the sharks during the expedition suggest the adult female great whites found around the island spend much of their lives in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
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Image courtesy Chris Ross/Chris Fischer
Fish Out of Water
The hydraulic lift raises a great white shark, which had been caught with tuna bait, out of the Pacific Ocean off Mexico in 2008.
After being brought above deck, this shark was secured to the raised platform for about 15 minutes while the crew took blood samples, measured the shark, and attached a tracking antenna to the fish's dorsal fin.
The giant "shark elevator" has "broken a barrier on our capabilities on great white shark research," according to the 2008 expedition's lead scientist Michael Domeier, director of the California-based Marine Conservation Science Institute.
Previously researchers were able to get this close only to dead specimens, because of the danger the sharks pose in the water, he said.
Before the hydraulic lift lowers a great white shark back into the ocean, team member Jody Whitworth lifts the shark's nose, while the ship's captain, Brett McBride, removes the hydration hose—a device that pumps seawater into sharks' mouths and over their gills to stave off suffocation.
Shark conservationist Richard Peirce, chair of the U.K.-based Shark Trust, who wasn't part of the project, said that he "and others in the conservation community would have concerns about catch methods and moving such large animals from the support of the surrounding water. Inappropriate handling can result in damage to internal organs."
Expedition Great White lead scientist Michael Domeier said he had similar concerns. To address them, "we started with small sharks and gradually worked our way up to larger ones," he said. "We found it really wasn't a problem."
On the shark elevator, lead expedition scientist Michael Domeier takes a blood sample from a great white shark off Mexico's Guadalupe Island in 2008.
Tests of the sharks' sex-hormone levels could reveal whether the annual great white gathering to feast on seals around Guadalupe Island doubles as a mating opportunity. Sperm discovered in the claspers, or external sex organs, of local male sharks suggest eating isn't the area's only allure.
"Males are not in a state of reproductive readiness year-round, so the presence of sperm is a very strong indication of mating," Domeier said.