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Saturday, January 29, 2011

Marine Biologist and Fairfield Native Greg Skomal

Marine Biologist and 
Fairfield Native Greg Skomal:
Shark tagger extraordinaire
(Appeared as a front page feature 
in Fairfield Sun 1/27)
By Mike Lauterborn
© 2011. All Rights Reserved.

Winter holidays in the Caribbean, an early interest in science and the popularity of undersea documentaries were among the influences that led a Fairfield native to pursue a career in marine biology. On February 2, he will return to the area to speak about his work tagging great white sharks off Cape Cod and sharing insights about these magnificent beasts of the deep.

The Sun connected by phone with Dr. Greg Skomal at his Massachusetts home on a recent mid-winter day to learn about his upbringing in Fairfield, career path and his tracking work.

Local Roots
While Skomal, 50, was born in Stamford, he considers himself a Fairfield native as the family moved there in 1969 when he was eight. Mom Eileen was a homemaker, busy with Skomal and his six siblings, who later volunteered as a room monitor at Fairfield Woods Middle School. Dad Bernard was an independent insurance agent at Insurance Analysis Inc. in the Post Road’s Brick Walk plaza.

Skomal became well rooted in Fairfield, attending Our Lady of Assumption School, achieving his scuba diving certification at the YMCA, serving as a lifeguard at both South Pine Creek and Southport beaches and graduating from Fairfield College Preparatory School, in 1979.

Of his time at Prep, Skomal said, “I took specialty classes like chemistry, physics and advanced biology and was also on the swim team – all great experiences. Fairfield was a wonderful town to grow up in and Prep gave me a solid foundation in science on which to build my career,” said Skomal. 

During this time and up through the late 80s, Skomal was also fortunate to spend winter holidays in St. Croix, where his father had purchased a condominium. It was a combination of those trips, his science studies and TV programs like “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” that led Skomal to want to pursue a career as a marine biologist.

Higher Education
At the University of Rhode Island, Skomal latched onto mentors that helped foster his interest and build the “superstructure” of his career. There were very few schools that offered degrees in marine biology, so he pursued marine-oriented courses in zoology and classes in the school’s world-recognized oceanography program.

“My strategy at URI was to get the requirements out of the way and move on to graduate-level courses to sharpen my skills as a scientist,” he said. “I also made strong connections with several professors who noted my advancement and that I was competing with graduate level students.”

As he neared completion of a B.S. in zoology, he was also volunteering his time to a shark research program at a nearby Federal lab of the National Marine Fisheries Service. “I was fascinated by what they did and thought sharks were really cool.”

As he planned to close out his undergrad career at a field station in the Caribbean, the lab offered him a paid position as a technician, which he decided to take after some deliberation. As it required that he maintain a student status, he quickly joined a Master’s program at URI. It was there, over the next 4 to 5 years, that his interest in shark biology and ecology blossomed.

In 1987, as he received his Master’s in zoology and his lab term concluded, the state of Massachusetts was seeking marine biologists for its local Marine Fisheries offices. Skomal landed a spot with a field station in Martha’s Vineyard, which asked him to continue with his shark-related research work. Specifically, he was asked to study sharks off the coast of New England and develop programs to manage shark populations.

“I had a very forward-thinking supervisor who said ‘the world is your oyster’ in terms of developing programming,” he said. “That and living in Martha’s Vineyard were really attractive.”

Diverse Experiences
Skomal thought he would give the position five years, but ended up spending 23 years with that branch. In fact, he still works for the state’s Marine Fisheries but has “moved up the ladder and off the island”, working out of New Bedford, MA as a Program Manager.

His work has been diverse and exciting. One aspect involves field work and studying local shark species, applying new technologies to study habitats and ecology, and tagging sharks. A second role involves sharing his skills and learning with other shark scientists in areas like the Central Pacific, Australia, Europe, the Red Sea, Gulf of Mexico and Ecuador. A third aspect is translating the science into meaningful conservation, working with state, Federal and international agencies to put fisheries management measures into place to protect sharks and maintain their population levels.

Skomal has also had his share of intense moments over the years, like his first up-close observations of great white sharks in Australia, where he did some cage diving. “It was mind-numbing to be in the water with such incredible beasts – some fifteen feet long and over 2,000 pounds,” he said. “We all have perceptions of sharks as kids, like in the film ‘Jaws’. All that imagery goes through your mind, but with me, logic prevails over emotion. You have to keep a cool head and trust the people you’re with. Still, sharks are unpredictable and can do a lot of damage. You have to be careful.”

Skomal also recalled some great experiences near a small atoll in the central Pacific in the late 90s. “I was doing research out there as part of my PhD and had the chance to swim with Gray Reef Sharks, without a cage, putting cameras on their backs, taking blood samples and tagging them.”

Ninety-five percent of the time, Skomal said, tagging is done from a vessel, as it’s easier in terms of accuracy and aim. The dorsal fin is tagged at its base, into the muscle. “When you’re in the water with them, it’s difficult to get into position and get the leverage you need,” he said.

With certain sharks, though, like the Basking Shark and Whale Shark, tagging must be done underwater as the creatures are so big. Skomal said tagging the Whale Sharks is actually enjoyable as its done in clear tropical waters and the animal is not dangerous. On the other hand, tagging the Basking Shark can be intimidating and spooky as it’s done in murky New England waters and because of their sheer mass.

Skomal said the most dangerous work he’s ever done was up in the Arctic Circle with a poorly understood species called the Greenland Shark. “My team and I were the first to travel to the area to catch some of these animals and study them. We worked in sub-freezing temperatures and under a six-foot thick crust of ice,” he said.

The scientist has detailed some of these experiences in a book he penned titled, “The Shark Handbook”. Published in 2008, it provides shark facts and information in simple language to which the average person can relate.

“People will probably always be afraid of sharks,” said Skomal, “but what they have to realize is that they are important parts of the ocean environment that help maintain a healthy ocean ecosystem.”


Dr. Greg Skomal to give shark talk at Maritime Aquarium
A marine biologist with Fairfield roots, Dr. Greg Skomal has spent the last two summers tagging great white sharks off of Cape Cod and will share what his research has revealed about the predators in a lecture on Wed. Feb. 2 at 7 p.m. at The Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk. Following his talk, audiences will enjoy a special bonus screening of the IMAX movie, “Island of the Sharks.”

“Popular TV shows that run on networks like Discovery often depict great white sharks in clear tropical water,” said Skomal. “No one thinks of them being in the Atlantic. That’s because they haven’t congregated anywhere seasonally in this great body of water like they do in other areas like South Africa and South Australia where they predictably visit seal colonies.”

Skomal said that because of government policies implemented over the past 30 years regarding seal conservation which have resulted in rebounding colonies of Gray Seals in Atlantic waters, particularly off Cape Cod, great white sharks are returning.

“More and more people have had sightings, which we’ve monitored and confirmed,” said Skomal. “Things came to a head in 2009 when a fisherman eyed several great whites near a colony and we went and tagged them. Last year, we tagged more. Essentially, what we have is a new or redeveloped ‘hot spot’ for great whites that will help yield new data about their eating, mating and movements – the first real insights into how these animals live in this part of the world.”

At his lecture, Skomal will speak about the changing dynamic, share the latest tag data, show some of the only existing underwater video footage of great white sharks in the Atlantic and talk about the tracking process.

“The more we can learn about sharks, the better we can be as stewards of the environment,” hoped Skomal.

To reserve tickets, call The Maritime Aquarium at 203-852-0700, ext 2206.

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