PROVIDENCE — She is the size of a kindergartener, with a mouth like sharpened saws, and when she swims by the underwater acoustic receivers, one would think they’d start pinging, “Doo doo doo doo doo doo.”
Baby Shark, just a few weeks old but already 3½ feet long, was tagged with an acoustic transmitter in late August in the waters between Block Island and Montauk, N.Y., by researchers with the Atlantic Shark Institute and O’Seas Conservation Foundation.
No catchy kiddie songs for this little great white shark — when she swims past the underwater acoustic receivers, they’ll just emit a regular “ping.” But for the next 10 years, if Baby Shark survives, she’ll be able to teach researchers about how sharks grow up.
Of the 300 or so great white sharks that have been tagged by scientists to learn more about the creature’s habits in the northwest Atlantic Ocean, Baby Shark is believed to be the smallest, said Jon Dodd, executive director of the Atlantic Shark Institute in Rhode Island.
“She is a beauty and super-special,” Dodd added.
Baby Shark is the eighth great white tagged in Rhode Island this summer, and all have been “super healthy” newborns or juveniles, Dodd said. Their presence shows that the mothers are coming into shallower waters here to have their pups and give them a chance to survive, away from predators in the deep ocean, Dodd said.
However, Dodd said it’s still “an open question” whether Rhode Island is a nursery for great whites.
It took years of research to determine that the south shore of Long Island is baby shark territory, and the Atlantic Shark Institute is just beginning to learn more about the great whites who pass Rhode Island waters, Dodd said. Last year, they tagged one shark. This year, they’ve tagged eight, including Baby Shark, Dodd said.
“Until we started actively catching them, it was a question that no one was answering,” Dodd said. “This is hinting toward the fact that we may be a nursery and we may be a residency for young sharks. ... That would be remarkable.”
Each acoustic tag carries a unique code with the gender, size, and date that each shark was caught. When the sharks swim by any of the hundreds of receivers along the East Coast, the code data is logged, so researchers learn more about their migration patterns and survival.
So far, there are 13 receivers in Rhode Island, and they’ve captured sharks swimming by — like one young female who was tagged inside Point Judith earlier this summer. She swam off to the Southwest Ledge, then down to New Jersey, and came back to the wind farm of Block Island. “She’s a traveler,” Dodd said.
The technology will help researchers pinpoint where the white sharks give birth and focus on the nurseries for the young sharks to make sure they are protected as they grow and survive. “We’ve made considerable progress with this study in just two years,” Dr. Craig O’Connell, executive director of the O’Seas Conservation Foundation, said in a statement. “This small shark will not only provide valuable data over the next 10 years, but due to its size, may further shed light on the importance of this region to this apex predator.”
The acoustic tags last about a decade, a short time in the long life span of a great white. Baby Shark won’t be old enough to have her own pups until she’s about 30 years old, Dodd said.
“If it takes something 30 years to reproduce itself one time, you have to be very, very careful with it,” Dodd said. “This is a great white shark, and this thing is immediately on its own. That’s why mothers are smart enough to go into shallower areas and give birth with pups. It gives them a better chance to survive, and grow and thrive. It’s really remarkable they get to 30 years old at all.”