A Yakutat Shark-Tag Tale

Jane Stevens at Hopkins Marine Station, Pacific Grove, CA - Geoff Widdows is the first person to tell you that another name for Yakutat, Alaska, in the winter is Deadsville. So when Aaron Carlisle, a graduate student who studies salmon sharks sent an email to all (five) of Yakutat's charter boat captains to ask them to go on a treasure hunt for a satellite tag that would win one lucky guy $1,000, you'd think that they would've been scrambling all over each other for a chance at a little excitement.

"I was the only one that took the bait," says Widdows.

"It was the first beautiful day we’d had in ages," Widdows says about that Friday, Feb. 22. A commercial fisherman for 30 years, he now runs Sea Raven Charters with his wife, Kris. He was telling me the story on a typical Yakutat March day: snow and rain, winds 15 to 45 mph. Yucky in Yakutat. "I called a buddy of mine, told him I'd got this crazy email from a guy in California. We put the skiff in bay."

They motored to the coordinates that Carlisle had given him -- a beach on Knight Island, about a 30-minute skiff ride from Yakutat. They walked up and down the beach, but couldn't find it.

"I called Aaron," says Widdows. "It’s there, he said."

The tag popped off in an enclosed area in eastern Yakutat Bay. It floated west, washed ashore on Knight Island. The pop-off location is the green point. The yellow point shows where it was found.

Carlisle had helped put three tags on a salmon shark on August 23, 2007 in Prince William Sound. It was one of 11 of the large fish that he and the crew from Barb Block's lab tagged last year. One was an archival tag -- it's implanted in the shark and records pressure (for depth), ambient light (for location), and internal and external body temperature. Its data is the richest, but you have to recapture the shark to retrieve the tag.

The SPOT tag -- attached to the shark's dorsal fin -- sends a signal to a satellite every time the shark surfaces. Salmon sharks come to the surface a lot. It records pressure, speed and water temperature, but it doesn't record as much data as the other two tags.

Pop-up tags are programmed to release from the shark at a certain time, float to the surface, and transmit a sample of all the data collected to a satellite. But there's much more data on the tag than its two-week batteries can transmit. That's why there's $1,000 reward for the tags. (The archival tags offer rewards, too.)

The pop-up tag came from this shark. It's looks like a microphone on the back of the shark. The SPOT tag's attached to the dorsal fin.

This tag popped off the salmon shark in Yakutat Bay after riding on the shark's back and collecting data for six months. It floated over to Knight Island, says Carlisle, "and luckily the highest tides in a while occurred that day, so it washed up high on the beach." And stayed there. If he could get the pop-up tag back, he'd have better data to work with. And, to a researcher, data is better than blood.
To keep sharks calm during the tagging procedure, researchers cover the sharks' eyes and make sure that water flows over their gills. That's Aaron Carlisle in front, holding the water hose in the mouth of another shark that they tagged. Barb Block, who studies sharks and bluefin tuna, is in the orange hat. Behind her is graduate student Chris Perle.

It's there, Carlisle told Widdows. "So, Saturday, we went again," says Widdows, who rounded up two friends for the adventure. "I talked with a number of people in town. Told them what I was doing. They were pretty excited. Let’s go find this thing for this guy, I told them. We took a picnic lunch. We spent hours looking for it. The coordinates were precise; I expected to walk up the beach and pick it up. It wasn’t quite that simple. We couldn’t find it. Then it snowed for a couple of days."

In California, Carlisle was beginning to lose hope. "I think we were all getting a bit skeptical about finding the tag," he says. Knowing that the tag was sitting there on a beach in Alaska, close to a town and sending mere samples of its treasure of data was driving him crazy. "What are the chances, along the entire Pacific coast -- huge areas of rugged uninhabited area -- of a tag popping up in protected waters, washing ashore and staying ashore, in an area close to a town?"

Over the weekend, Widdows couldn’t get the tag off his mind. Of course, there isn't much to distract him in Yakutat. Only 600 people live there in the winter. The only way in or out is by boat or plane.

So, when it stopped raining and snowing, he tried again. "I went up on Tuesday (Feb. 26). It was blowin' like stink. I got to the beach. I went half-mile down this way. Then 400 yards the other way. And there it was. We'd walked right by it on Friday and Saturday. It was so easy to miss. It's black. It's small. There’s a lot of kelp and rocks on the beach. It blends right in." He motored back, and, right away went over to show his friends. "You son of a gun," he said they said.

"It's kind of the most exciting thing that’s happened around here all winter," says Widdows. "I probably shouldn’t say that." (Although Widdows is quick to say his town is very quiet in the winter, he loves it, even with all the snow and rain. And in the summer, it's positively jaw-dropping beautiful. And hopping.)

He kept the tag in his refrigerator until his wife returned from Anchorage to take these photos, and then sent it back yesterday. A couple of days before he and I chatted, he went out fishing for herring for his summer supply of bait, because he saw huge schools when he was satellite-tag hunting. "I've never seen any more than this. I got 500 pounds of herring. That’s probably why Aaron’s shark was up there. I saw a humpback, too."

That's what Carlisle says. Salmon sharks usually head south for the winter. But some tough it out in Alaska, probably when enough herring are around.

As their name implies, these sharks usually eat salmon. Widdows says he has plenty of experience with the sharks. "I've lost more gear and beautiful salmon to those things. All of a sudden, chomp, it’s gone," he says. In one close encounter, he had just caught a salmon on a line close to the boat. "I pulled the fish up, conked it on the head, and put my gaff hook into it to pull in it the boat. Up from nowhere, comes this shark and takes it." Right in front of his face. Right out of his hands. Salmon sharks are big: they can grow to 10 feet long and weigh 900 pounds. They're fast: they can swim 50 mph. And they've got big teeth and powerful jaws. Widdows says he sank to his knees and had to stop moving for a while.

"Up until I found this tag, wasn’t too fond of them," he says. "And now I like them."