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'Expedition Great White' premieres Sunday on National Geographic Channel

June 1, 2010 |  4:12 pm

Crew members get a female great white shark into position on the hydraulic lift.

The great white shark has been on the planet for more than 10 million years, and yet still remains one of the world's most mysterious predators.

Now, a crew has set out in an attempt to document more information on white sharks, hoping to better understand their migratory patterns -- where they actually travel, and why.

"Expedition Great White" premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on National Geographic Channel, with two hourlong episodes. Three additional episodes will follow, airing at 10 p.m. on Sunday nights through June 27.

Using a specially designed, 126-foot long mothership that includes a 37-ton hydraulic platform for hoisting a living shark out of the ocean, marine biologist Michael Domeier takes a crew to Mexico's Guadalupe Island, 160 miles west of Baja California, in the hopes of landing, tagging and releasing seven sharks alive.

Domeier has been studying white sharks at Guadalupe Island, one of the world's largest seasonal gathering places for adult great white sharks, for at least a decade. He has compiled a database which includes more than 100 sharks -- identified by gill slits, pectoral fins, tails and color patterns -- and can identify many by the names they've been given.

White sharks visit the area from August until February or March. While it is known that they are there because of the abundance of available prey, since it is birthing time for seals on the island, Domeier believes it may also be a mating site for the giant sharks, something he is hoping to confirm.

The men involved in the pursuit know that it's a fine line between breaking a white shark's will and life-threatening exhaustion.

Once they successfully get a shark onto the platform, the team has only 20 minutes at the most to complete what needs to be done. Descending on the animals with NASCAR pit-crew precision, each team member knows their task and work together to get all necessary data -- inserting a large hose in the mouth to flush water through the shark's gills so it can breathe, mounting a satellite tracking tag, and taking measurements, DNA samples and photographs.

The new satellite tags are bolted to the top of the dorsal fin, and will provide up to six years of real-time tracking information.

"All this research we are doing hopefully one day it'll put together a comprehensive management plan for white sharks so they're protected wherever they go," Domeier said.

Domeier is a legitimate researcher, but some might question his methods of hooking sharks and then  tiring the predators to the extent that they are completely worn out and can no longer struggle.

At one point I wondered about the possible cruelty of the method, which at times appeared overly intrusive and harmful to a species of shark that is protected by federal law in the U.S. But each time a team member shouted "Fish On!" the tension mounted, and I found myself hoping they would get it to the lift, wanting to see the animal out of the water. And I cannot think of any other way to study one of these voracious fish so closely while they are alive and breathing.

And Domeier seemed to have a genuine interest in the well-being of the sharks, both those captured and otherwise.

"The public really needs to pay attention and care about sharks," said Domeier. "If we continue to fish sharks as heavily as we do now, they're going to disappear from the planet."

-- Kelly Burgess

Photo: Crew members get a female great white shark into position on the hydraulic lift. Credit: © Chris Ross / Chris Fischer / National Geographic Channel

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