Southeast Marine Biology Student Swims with Sharks

Will To Do: In Their Own Words
Southeast Missouri State University senior Noah McCarter of Byrnes Mill, Missouri, got up close and personal with great whites this summer as a support crew member with White Shark Africa, a shark cage diving and research company in Mossel Bay, South Africa.

McCarter, a biology major, wildlife and conservation option, assisted with cage dives, research and education. He has a passion for marine biology, and working with sharks that he translated into “a dream come true.” Read about his exciting experiences, including working alongside a Discovery Channel Shark Week team for the Phelps vs. Shark episode!

On White Shark Africa:

I heard about the internship through flyers posted in my plant biology class at Southeast. I applied online and found out that I had been selected about a month later. Working with sharks has always been a dream of mine, so I cried when I found out I had been accepted.

On his duties as a support crew member:

I was on two different boats. First Strike was a cage diving vessel, and the other was a research vessel called Swallow. On First Strike, my primary duties were chumming (dumping cut or ground bait into the water), tying bait heads for the sharks, shark spotting, cage diving and assisting clients who paid to cage dive with the sharks. On Swallow, my primary duties were chumming and retrieving seal decoys.

Southeast student Noah McCarter (far left, blue jacket) chums the waters during the filming of a Discovery Channel Shark Week episode (Photo courtesy of Discovery Channel).

On a typical day:

The other interns and I met the clients who were there to cage dive and gave a presentation about the importance of sharks and why they should be protected, rather than feared. We would walk the clients down to our cage diving vessel First Strike to head out of the harbor and towards seal island. The boat ride to the island took about 10 minutes, during which I prepared the bait heads and the chum. When we arrived, I would chum the water to attract the sharks. Once we had a few great whites around the boat, we lowered the cage and helped people into their wetsuits and lowered them into the cage. I helped spot the sharks and often got to go in the cage myself!

On our other vessel Swallow, we conducted research trips. Our skipper, Gibbs, is a brilliant person, and he does a lot of amazing research with hammerheads. Lots of research was being done on stress hormones in pyjama sharks. There are always so many cool projects and scientific discoveries going on in Mossel Bay, and it was really cool to witness that. We also did breaching trips out to Seal island. Breaching is when a shark launches itself onto its prey from below, propelling itself out of the water. We would go during the early morning hours, when the sharks are more likely to breach, to try and record the activity. You tow a seal decoy — ours was made out of an old wetsuit and named Samson — behind the boat and wait with cameras at the ready. It’s an amazing thing to see, and a really fascinating behavior that sharks display. Great white sharks have been known to breach 10 feet out of the water. It’s truly wild to see such a massive animal flying that high above the waves.

On participating in the filming of a Discovery Channel Shark Week episode:

Southeast student Noah McCarter (far right) chums the waters during the filming of a Discovery Channel Shark Week episode (Photo courtesy of Discovery Channel).

It was amazing to be a part of the production of a Shark Week episode! I’ve loved sharks since I was a kid, and my family and I always watch Shark Week together, so seeing myself on the screen this year was really surreal. My main jobs were to chum the waters around Seal Island to bring in sharks, and help the crew with their equipment. Helping the Discovery Channel crew with their equipment was really neat. I helped load the big metal gaff onto the boat which they used to measure the sharks’ speeds, and I also go to help them test it for a few trial runs. I also saw the giant drones they use to get those incredible aerial shots that everyone loves. Meeting Michael Phelps and all of the amazing shark researchers was wonderful, too. It was an exhausting week and a ton of work, but it was so worth it to get to be a part of something like that and to work with so many great individuals.

To watch McCarter chum the waters during Discovery Channel’s Phelps vs. Shark episode, visit https://www.discovery.com/tv-shows/shark-week/full-episodes/phelps-vs-shark-great-gold-vs-great-white.

On the benefits of this experience:

The most important thing I gained from this internship is confidence. I did so many things all on my own, and getting to work and live in South Africa alongside beautiful animals and brilliant people was a dream come true. I went on a safari and saw warthogs, elephants, zebra, giraffes, white rhinos, impala, crocodiles and so many more animals! I saw a troop of baboons on the side of the highway. I saw ostrich farms. I jumped into the freezing Indian Ocean without a wetsuit and got hypothermia! I met all kinds of people from all sorts of different backgrounds, which I think is magnificent – researchers, surfers, wildlife cinematographers, shark enthusiasts, and divers. Most importantly, I got to work with great white sharks in their natural habitat.

Southeast student Noah McCarter got to work with great white sharks in their natural habitat.

On what excites him about marine biology:

Ever since I can remember, I’ve always been fascinated by the ocean and everything that lives in it. I feel so much more at home when I’m by the sea, so it’s highly inconvenient that I was born and raised in Missouri! But I’ve been following my passion and going to the ocean as often as possible, as well as researching marine life and taking online courses and doing internships such as this one.

On his future goals:

After I graduate, May 2018, my plan is to go wherever the road takes me. I would love to continue seeing more of the world, and I plan on moving closer to the coast to continue learning about and working with marine life. Hopefully I’ll be on Shark Week again someday! I would love to discover a new species. I have lots of big dreams for my future and for the future of marine biology.