NEWBURYPORT — Over the course of nearly 10 years as a videographer for WHDH Channel 7 news, local resident Neal Ernstrom has seen some amazing things, including watching from behind the end zone as the New England Patriots won their first Super Bowl in 2001.
But last Thursday, Ernstrom said he saw something that rivals even that historic moment when he came within 3 feet of a great white shark captured off the coast of Cape Cod.
Thankfully, Ernstrom was on board an OCEARCH research vessel and the roughly 15-foot-long beast was safely secured by the scientists tagging its dorsal fin.
Had he been in the water with the shark, affectionately called Genie by the OCEARCH scientists, it would have been quite a different story, Ernstrom said.
“I’d have a heart attack,” said the father of twin 4-month-old girls.
The scientists had come to the waters off Chatham from South Africa after learning that great white sharks had been spotted nearby due to a larger than typical gray seal population this season.
OCEARCH is a nonprofit organization that studies the biology and health of sharks. By tagging sharks with global positioning devices, scientists and anyone with a computer can track the sharks as they navigate the globe.
Upon their arrival in Massachusetts, the scientists invited media outlets to join them in their search for great white sharks. A previous trip turned up nothing. But last Thursday around 6:30 p.m., just when the scientists were about to chalk up another day with no sharks, their luck turned. A great white was spotted roughly 3 miles southwest of Chatham.
Using a seal decoy to lure the shark closer, the scientists were able to hook it and guide it to the back of the vessel. The shark was then placed on a lift and taken out of the water. As the shark was kept fully hydrated, scientists attached the tracking device to its fin and spent 15 minutes studying it in greater detail before setting it free.
The 2,500-pound shark was named Genie to honor the founder of Mote Marine Laboratories, Eugenie Clark, who became known as “the shark lady” for her more than 60 years spent studying the sometimes terrifying yet fascinating and important fishes.
By early this week, Genie was swimming south of the western point of Nantucket.
According to Ernstrom, it was the first time a great white shark had been tagged this way in the Atlantic Ocean. During the tagging process, Ernstrom shot video from as close as 3 feet from Genie. Asked if he was scared being so close to such a notorious fish, Ernstrom said he felt completely safe based on the professionalism of the scientists.
“I trusted these guys, they knew what they were doing,” Ernstrom said. “It’s awe-inspiring to see it.”
For Ernstrom, who has been fishing the waters off Newburyport since he was a boy, the experience was one he said he’d never forget.
“It was awesome, just great. I have a story of a lifetime to tell my girls,” Ernstrom said.
Want to track Genie? Visit OCEARCH’s website at www.ocearch.org and type in Global Shark Tracker.