The oceanic whitetip shark was once widely distributed throughout our world’s oceans; however, human impacts (such as overfishing) have since diminished the status of this shark to the point of being critically endangered in the Northwest Atlantic. Starting in 2017, a team of scientists from the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life joined the research efforts of a long-standing, multi-institutional expedition to study the severely threatened oceanic whitetip shark off Cat Island, the Bahamas. Check out this previous blog post for more information on our research.

In response to the decline of this apex predator, the Cape Eleuthera Institute Shark Research and Conservation Program and Microwave Telemetry started this expedition in 2011 and has since then partnered with the University of North Florida, Anderson Cabot Center, photographer-videographer Andy Mann, and The Moore Charitable Foundation. Research from this conservation effort has focused on better understanding the migration and movement patterns of this species, its reproductive biology, the genetic structure of the population, and behavior and physiology in response to capture and handling.

Ryan Knotek (University of Massachusetts Boston Ph.D. candidate) drawing blood from an oceanic whitetip shark. Photo courtesy: Andy Mann.
Ryan Knotek (University of Massachusetts Boston Ph.D. candidate) draws blood from an oceanic whitetip shark. Photo courtesy: Andy Mann.

Recently, the team has also expanded upon educational conservation efforts in an exciting new collaboration with Google Expeditions. The Google Expeditions application is an interactive outreach and teaching platform that uses virtual reality to bring students and other viewers “into-the-field” and alongside scientists as they conduct real-world research. The app is free to download and supported by most mobile devices (Android and Apple).

Lesson plans are created in Google Expeditions and can be used in either an educational setting—where students are guided through lessons by a teacher—or followed independently in a narrated, self-guided “explorer” tour.

Google Expedition scene from the virtual reality lesson plan,
Google Expedition scene from the virtual reality lesson plan "Studying oceanic whitetip sharks in the Bahamas" shows the team of scientists performing an ultrasound and drawing blood from a pregnant oceanic whitetip shark. Photo courtesy: Andy Mann

Led by Andy Mann and scientist Maggie Winchester, our research team developed a virtual reality lesson plan that highlights the key components of our work with oceanic whitetip sharks and how it fits within the broader context and global importance of shark research and conservation.

This Google Expedition transports viewers to Cat Island, where they come “face-to-face” with oceanic whitetip sharks and have an interactive experience of the science in action, as researchers work up a shark boat-side before a healthy release. Virtual reality technology is on the forward edge of education, and we believe it can become a powerful conservation tool for better connecting the public with research efforts such as this.

This expedition was made publicly available in May. Just search the application for “Studying oceanic whitetip sharks in the Bahamas.”

Oceanic whitetip shark swims off Cat Island, the Bahamas. Photo courtesy: Andy Mann
An oceanic whitetip shark swims off Cat Island, the Bahamas. Photo courtesy: Andy Mann

Two weeks after its release, team scientist Ryan Knotek (Anderson Cabot Center) guided the first students through the virtual reality lesson plan at St. Clements School, an elementary school in upstate New York.

Ryan Knotek (University of Massachusetts Boston Ph.D. candidate) leading students from St. Clements Elementary School (Saratoga Springs, NY) through the Google Expedition for the first time.
Ryan Knotek (University of Massachusetts Boston, Ph.D. candidate) leads students from St. Clements School in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., through the Google Expedition for the first time.

The students were not only excited by the research, but were fully engaged throughout the experience and finished the lesson with valuable knowledge that will hopefully promote conservation efforts in the future—an example of our ultimate goal for this outreach tool!

We would like to thank all our collaborators and funders that have made this expedition and the release of Google Expeditions possible: The Moore Charitable Foundation, Dr. Edd Brooks, Annabelle Brooks, Dr. James Gelsleichter, Lucy Howey-Jordan, Dr. Lance Jordan, Debbie Abercrombie, Dr. Mark Bond, Maggie Winchester, Brendan Talwar, Oliver Shipley, Chelsea Shields, and Andy Mann.


Banner Image: Three oceanic whitetip sharks off Cat Island, the Bahamas.
Photo courtesy: Andy Mann