The name Christopher Lowe, a professor of marine biology at Long Beach State, has become synonymous with the on-campus Shark Lab. For years, Lowe has served as a guiding captain, overseeing the lab’s countless research projects. Yet, the Shark Lab is far from a one man operation. Rather, Lowe’s vision of utilizing the lab as a medium to study the physiological and behavioral ecology of marine animals is made possible by a collective of people — the majority of which are student volunteers.
In order to research the population of white sharks living along the Golden State’s coast, the lab recently received a $3.75 million contract from the state of California. Two main objectives of the research project, coined the “White Shark Project,” include gaining a better understanding of the growing shark population as well as enhancing beach safety. Many of the lab’s volunteers, as well as its paid researchers and technicians, are involved.
“So, we know that white sharks use our beaches as nurseries — a lot of young white sharks hang out along the beaches and they are in and among swimmers and surfers,” Lowe said. “There’s a concern about the risk of that interaction, but there’s no scientific data to demonstrate that it’s dangerous.”
Lowe calls his team of researchers “shark spies.” Aside from specializing in studying the behavior of sharks, the lab also researches what kind of risks sharks pose to humans. The Shark Lab has been researching this since its early days after opening in 1966. The technology used then was a lot less advanced; however, the researchers’ methods of acquiring information were still impressive.
For example, Donald Nelson, the former director of the Shark Lab, developed a man-operated wet sub, coined the SOS II — short for Shark Observation Submersible, which he used to study aggressive behavior emitted by sharks. For study, Nelson would film himself purposefully chasing sharks while operating the SOS II until the sharks began eliciting a threatening response, according to Lowe.
“So what he figured out is sharks exhibit a body language where they drop their pectoral fins, they arch their back, they go into this exaggerated swimming behavior, which, at the time, we as humans, never really saw before. We just thought it was odd, but we couldn’t interpret it,” Lowe said.
Findings like these, coupled with Nelson’s groundbreaking use of acoustic telemetry to study sharks, helped advance the shark lab into one of the nation’s leading outlets for the study of sharks and their behavior. The technology used today — such as harmless tracking device transmitters which attach to sharks in order to acquire data and underwater receivers capable of determining a shark’s location — is as state-of-the-art as it has ever been.
Currently, the lab employs eight graduate students, a postdoctoral researcher, three technicians and approximately 80 undergraduate students — many of which either volunteer or work in the lab. Furthermore, the lab receives help from about 40 to 60 volunteers from the neighboring Long Beach community, according to Lowe.
First year graduate student of biology, Taylor Smith loves sharks. Smith graduated with a bachelor’s degree in marine biology from University of California, San Diego. Shortly after graduation, she began searching for work at a lab that primarily focuses on shark research. Lucky for her, the LBSU Shark Lab does exactly that.
“A lot of labs [at other universities] will focus on a lot of different animals but not really have a specific focus for a wide range of topics with one animal,” Smith said. “The sharks that we focus on [at the LBSU Shark Lab] we look at from metabolism or contaminants or more ecological purposes and studies. So there was a lot more you can do with sharks versus one small section.”
Her passion for all-things sharks has helped her become one of the Shark Lab’s most versatile members because she is willing to work on any assignment involving sharks.
Smith works with the lab’s educational outreach program as well as the “Jaws ID’ing program.” This program has no correlation with the 1975 Steven Spielberg film and everything to do with the categorization of actual shark jaws. Given an abundance of different shark jaws by The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, Smith and the other lab members are now in the process of determining and classifying which jaws belong to their respective species.
Aside from that, Smith is currently working on the “Juvenile White Shark Project.” She scuba-dives into the ocean to help with the lab’s acoustic telemetry work. This work is crucial in order to detect what areas sharks are migrating toward.
However, her upcoming assignment may just be her most ambitious one yet. Within the next six months, Smith will travel to Alaska, on behalf of the LBSU Shark Lab, to research the longevity of the Pacific Sleeper Shark, a species which has an estimated lifespan of hundreds of years.
“The Greenland shark which is closely related to the species I’ll be working with, the Pacific Sleeper, was recently found last year, or two years ago, to live between 272 and 512 years,” Smith said. “So we assume that Pacific Sleepers have a similar longevity. So we want to see what mechanism could lead them to live for so long.”
Smith shared that one of the most rewarding parts about working at the Shark Lab has been working alongside Lowe.
“He definitely pushes you beyond what you think you can do,” Smith said.
Although the Shark Lab focuses on researching different shark species — Arthur Barraza, an LBSU alumnus who graduated with a degree in science and biology last spring, is best known in the lab for his research on green sea turtles. Officially, he’s the lab’s fiscal operations coordinator and also helps with administrative matters. Lowe calls Barraza his “fixer.” According to Barraza, it isn’t uncommon for Lowe to simply ask him to fix whatever problem arises at the lab.
“The green sea turtles [research project] was my master’s project,” Barraza said. “Oddly enough, I was part of the shark lab but studying green sea turtle toxicology.”
Barraza’s graduate thesis involved comparing trace metals and pollutants in green sea turtles found in Seal Beach and San Diego Bay. He would obtain both blood and shell samples from the turtles, in order to examine how their tissues were affected by the polluted ocean water at the two locations.
Although Barraza continues to work with green sea turtles along the California coast, he’s worked as the lab’s fiscal operations coordinator for the past three months. Barraza said he feels that he’s grown substantially as a scientist within that time frame.
What drew Barraza to the Shark Lab, and has ultimately encouraged him to stay, are the interesting, albeit challenging, research projects currently in motion.
“I knew this was going to be a lab that was very intense,” Barraza said. “But that’s when you learn the most. I was really attracted to that, in general.”
The shark lab is home to a variety of different marine species aside from sharks. The lab houses a variety of stingrays and game fish. Similar to Barraza, third year graduate student of science and biology, Alyssa Clevenstine’s focal point of research is not necessarily on sharks, but rather on giant sea bass.
“Giant sea bass are a pretty popular topic of science right now because they were exploited throughout most of the 20th century — just recently are we starting to see their numbers increasing,” Clevenstine said.
Her research on giant sea bass is similar to the kind of work underway in the “White Shark Project,” as the technologies and telemetry used in both are similar.
“We do external tagging, the same way that we do for white sharks. What’s different though is that we do it underwater,” Clevenstine said. “So, I do a lot of scuba diving as a scientific scuba diver — so do a lot of members of my lab.”
She and her colleagues tag giant sea bass that are three to six feet long. However, rather than focus on large scale annual movements made by the sea bass, Clevenstine is focusing on aggregation among the marine species and determining the growth within a population of sea bass. Most of her work is done near Santa Catalina Island.
Clevenstine has been working at the Shark Lab since May 2016. At the lab, it is common for her to work anywhere between 5 to 7 days a week for around 10 hours a day. Although the workload may be demanding for a student, she considers her work at the lab to be profusely helpful in terms of her development as a scientist.
“Dr. Lowe has been exceedingly helpful. He doesn’t lead you directly on the path that you need to go on,” Clevenstine said. “He allows you to bob and weave and do what you need to do. If you’re screwing up, or if you’re doing something too bad, then he’ll help you get back on the right path. But it’s been a really helpful experience because he’s a little more hands-off in terms of building your own career.”
The Shark Lab’s semi-enclosed outside lab, located at HSCI – 121a, is known for hosting open houses for campus community members interested in getting a closer look at the housed marine species. Follow @CSULBsharklab on Twitter for news regarding upcoming events at the lab.
This story was updated on Dec. 3 to correct captions identifying Alyssa Clevenstine and Taylor Smith.