August 14, 2014 | by Mark McDonald
The Shark Whisperer

Marine Biologist Takes Winding Path to TV Special

{Note: “Monster Hammerhead” will be re-aired on The Discovery Channel at 1 a.m. and 6 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 16 and Sunday, Aug. 17 at 10: 30 a.m. All times CDT.}

By Mark S. McDonald
Editor, sportsandoutdoors.guru

BOERNE, Texas – It takes three-plus hours to drive from this German community to the nearest salt water. It’s farther yet between casting for bass in a Texas Hill Country stream to capturing massive sharks for The Discovery Channel.

For Dr. Greg Stunz, it was a long and improbable journey from the Texas Hill Country to working with live shark led to the filming of an episode of Shark Week on The Discovery Channel. (photo courtesy of Harte Research Institute, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi)

For Dr. Greg Stunz, it was a long and improbable journey from the Texas Hill Country to working with live shark led to the filming of an episode of Shark Week on The Discovery Channel. (photo courtesy of Harte Research Institute, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi)

Dr. Greg Stunz – marine biologist, lifelong angler, shark whisperer – might be the only man ever to make such a fishy journey. And he can tell you the distance is measured in more than miles.

“I went from perch-jerking in Cibolo Creek to perch-jerking in the Gulf,” Stunz said in a Thursday interview from his office in Corpus Christi. “Only now, these ‘perch’ might weigh 1,000 pounds.”

Not too long out of diapers, Greg started fishing tiny Cibola Creek, near Boerne Lake, using earthworms for panfish. Neither Greg nor his mother, Gloria, would touch the earthworm – eeeew – so his mother used Kleenex to thread the bait on Greg’s hook.

By the time Greg enrolled at Texas A&M, father Bob bought a 12-foot V-bottom boat to pester the white bass and largemouth in local waters. Greg would not clean his portion of the catch, it seems, until he had donned a pair of surgical gloves.

“Yeah,” Stunz said with a sheepish chuckle, “nobody knew about that until Bob started telling everybody.”

For this shark research, however, it’s strictly hands-on.

The Discovery Channel series “Shark Week” brought untold publicity to the research team headed by Dr. Greg Stunz. Ironically, tagging research has been going on since the mid-1990s. (photo by Dr. Matt Ajemian, courtesy of Harte Research Institute, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi)

The Discovery Channel series “Shark Week” brought untold publicity to the research team headed by Dr. Greg Stunz. Ironically, tagging research has been going on since the mid-1990s. (photo by Dr. Matt Ajemian, courtesy of Harte Research Institute, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi)

To film “Monster Hammerhead,” Stunz and his colleague, Dr. Matt Ajemian, caught toothy carnivores by prehistoric hand line methods – hand-over-hand, “Old Man and the Sea”-style with a 20/0 hook at 1,800-pound line five times thicker than used on a string trimmer.

“Once we get the shark to the surface, it almost gives up,” Stunz said, surprise in his voice.

Moving quickly to minimize stress on the fish, the team fixes each with a satellite tag that costs $5,000 and releases it back into the brine.

“The tag is so expensive,” Stunz said, “we don’t want to release a dead fish.”

From the tagging campaign, the Harte Research Institute research team from Gulf of Mexico Studies at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi hopes to track sharks to learn more about their movements and habitats.

This much is known:

  • The hammerhead is one of the most distinctive and mobile of all shark species. It may reach lengths approaching 20 feet. (photo by Sharks World)

    The hammerhead is one of the most distinctive and mobile of all shark species. It may reach lengths approaching 20 feet. (photo by Sharks World)

    Hammerheads are found throughout the world, but scientists say the populations are declining, due to overfishing and the lucrative shark fin trade.

  • The great fish with eyes on either end of a horizontal bar-like head can see nearly 360 degrees with only a slight turn of the head. The hammerhead is an athletic, highly mobile animal uniquely equipped by nature to feed on a variety of prey, notably the bottom-dwelling sting ray.

 

  • Longer than a pickup and weighing up to 1,000 pounds, hammerheads have the size and mystique to scare the continental crap out of us.

Only three of nine hammerhead species has attacked a human. Feel safer surfing? Dr. Stunz and other researchers are more concerned mid-range, long-term about the species’ survival prospects.

A lifelong angler, Dr. Greg Stunz maintains an abiding interest in most all fish. Here he poses with an excellent speckled trout he coaxed from Texas bay waters. (photo courtesy of Bob Beckett)

A lifelong angler, Dr. Greg Stunz maintains an abiding interest in most all fish. Here he poses with an excellent speckled trout he coaxed from Texas bay waters. (photo courtesy of Bob Beckett)

Key issue is that, in some cultures, shark fin is considered a delicacy. Many times, commercial fishermen capture a hammerhead, remove its fins, dumping the maimed animal overboard to die. As such, the No. 1 enemy of the hammerhead is man.

To better understand the creature, the research team from Harte has tagged and released more than 1,200 sharks. In addition to the shark campaign, the team has tagged speckled trout, flounder, red snapper, even freshwater white bass. Many of these fish were tagged by “citizen scientists” as part of a volunteer angling network.

One tagged shark covered more than 600 miles in just a few months, traveling from near Corpus Christi to Houston, before returning to waters off Mexico.

Funded by a grant from Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), the team skims the Gulf in a tricked-out $300,000-plus Yellowfin with triple 300-hp engines. The rig routinely runs 40 knots, but has serious giddy-up. Gulping fuel at 1.2 miles per gallon, the rig can reach 70 mph.

As recently as Wednesday, less than a day before this interview, the team caught, tagged and released two 10-foot tiger sharks.

Soon, we plan to check in on this team’s exciting research. For the record, no emergency requests for Kleenex have been reported.

The author is a former resident of Boerne, Texas, where he once was next-door neighbor of Dr. Stunz’ mother, Gloria, who taught half of Kendall County how to swim. McDonald knows how to swim, but would rather not. Instead, he prefers to continue work on his next book, “They Gave Us Baseball – Now Look What We’ve Done,” due for a 2015 release.

 

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