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Unprecedented Great White Shark Tracking Expedition Underway in Cape Cod [VIDEOS]

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Jul 31, 2013 11:19 AM EDT
Great White Shark
Beach officials are closing California's Stinson Beach located in Marin County after a great white shark (not pictured here) was spotted swimming along the shore. (Photo : Reuters / Ho New)

Tuesday a 126-foot-long modified crabbing boat departed a harbor in Woods Hole, Mass. to take part in what's being billed as the largest great white shark tracking expedition in US history.

The objective of the expedition is to locate, capture, tag and release as many as 20 great whites in the Cape Cod area. Researchers hope to gain insight into why there has been a recent increase of the presence of great white sharks in Cape Cod.

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Shark research outfit OCEARCH is conducting the expedition using a vessel of the same name and one other boat called the Contender. The OCEARCH vessel is fitted with a hydraulic lift in the stern which can be used to raise a captive shark out of the water for researchers to get close enough to affix tracking devices onto the fish and conduct bio-sampling.

The tag-and-release study by the research team OCEARCH will also provide researchers with a 15-minute window to preform a series of tasks on the sharks, which The Cape Cod Times reports include: "taking blood, collecting tissue, affixing an electronic tagging device, surgically implanting an acoustic tag that can function for 10 years and attaching an accelerometer that will measure the shark's movements through the water."

An ultrasound will be preformed on female sharks to examine their reproductive maturity; male sharks will get a measurement of their sex organs.

"We're going to learn about how this animal lives from day to day," said Greg Skomal, a state scientist and leader of Massachusetts' shark research project, told The Cape Cod Times.

"We have remarkable technology, some of which is brand new, that we're going to put onto these sharks," Skomal said. "We're going to get fine-scale movements; we're going to get broad-scale movements. We're going to learn about what it does every second that it's swimming away from this vessel over the course of several days."

To find the sharks, the scientists will rely on sophisticated instruments on board, as well as word of mouth from other ships in the cape. On the first day of the expedition the OCEARCH crew was notified of a great white eating a seal in the water by a fishing boat.

The OCEARCH research team and vessels have been tracking and studying great white sharks in waters around the world. The outfit publishes its data in real-time online and maintains an active presence on social media.

When a shark is caught it's reeled onto the OCEARCH hydraulic platform where it is secured in place and kept alive by ensuring water is over the fish's gills.

Chris Fischer, OCEARCH founding chairman and expedition leader, told The Cape Cod Times that the sophisticated tracking technology they will implant in the sharks will allow researches to essentially be with the shark at all hours of the day.

Simon Thorrold, a Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute biologist and senior scientist said:

"We're going to learn second to second so much more about these white sharks than from any of the techniques that have come before.

"We're going to have real-time, three-dimensional movements of these sharks, even when they're out in the middle of the Sargasso Sea (in the North Atlantic Ocean) doing, quite frankly, we don't know what. But we aim to find out."

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