La Jolla High grads work to save Great Whites from extinction on TV’s ‘Shark Men’
By Arthur Lightbourn
For the past two years, photographer Mark Frapwell has shot thousands of images of Great White sharks (in and out of the water) on scientific “catch, tag and release” expeditions to help collect data that will hopefully help save these threatened marine animals from extinction. The expeditions are being broadcast through Fischer Productions’ “Shark Men” TV series on the National Geographic Channel. The first season premiered April 10 and will continue on Sunday evenings through June 12.
Frapwell, 44, is the expeditions’ still photographer, and his former La Jolla High School classmate, Brett McBride, 43, is the expeditions’ marine captain. Fischer Productions is an outdoor-oriented television content provider and six-time Emmy Award winner.
McBride has been with the company for 14 years. He captained the vessel on “Offshore Adventures,” a televised sport-fishing program that ran on ESPN Outdoors for some 200 episodes.
Most recently, Fischer Productions formed a multi-vessel expedition unit to conduct ocean research to promote conservation and sustainable fishing practices around the world. To date, Frapwell has accompanied McBride and an 18-member crew of scientists, deck hands, and TV videographers on Great White expeditions to waters off Northern and Southern California, Mexico and Costa Rica where they have been gathering data on the breeding, feeding and migratory habits of the Great Whites. Sharks are particularly vulnerable to overfishing because they grow and mature slowly, and only have a small number of young.
Of his up-close encounters with the Great White shark, Frapwell said, “It is the most exhilarating and exciting thing I have ever done. It is so intense being in the water with a 4,000-pound Great White shark coming at me and no cage for protection.”
Frapwell was born in Normal, Illinois, the youngest in a family of three brothers. The family moved to La Jolla when he was six months old. His father, who passed away two years ago, was a State Farm Insurance agent.
“I’ve been taking photographs since I was about 10 years old,” Frapwell said from his studio in Carmel Valley. “My dad made a darkroom for us when we were little kids and we used to go out and play Army in the canyon and everybody would have their Red Ryder BB guns and I would have the camera [a Brownie]. And I’d take the pictures and go back to the darkroom and develop them.”
When he wasn’t shooting portraits, he focused on photographing landscapes. He began photographing wildlife commercially in 2002 on assignment for the San Diego Zoo in Botswana and Tanzania. In 2005, he returned to Africa to shoot photographs for a safari in Kenya. He later accompanied a group of doctors to Nigeria to document their work in surgically removing goiters caused by the excessive use of palm oil in the diets of the locals.
McBride was born in Washington, D.C., while his mother and father were in medical school. The family moved to La Jolla when he was 11 months old. “I started fishing and diving when I was 5,” McBride said. Also about that time, he met legendary San Diego-based, long-range sportfishing skipper Don Sansome, who became his hero.
“So from the time I was 5, I wanted to be a captain,” McBride said. “And I started working on boats when I was in the sixth grade.” After high school, he captained private yachts into Mexican, Costa Rican and Alaskan waters. In 1987, he moved to Cabo San Lucas in Baja California, where he lived and worked for 21 years. With a growing family, McBride recently returned to La Jolla with his wife, Gabriela, and their two children.
“I heard that Brett had been doing the ‘Offshore Adventures’ fishing shows,” Frapwell said, “and when we got together he told me about how he was catching and tagging Great White sharks and I said, ‘Are you serious?’ And I asked him if they would also need still photography, and he said, ‘Yeah,’ — and I said ‘I’m in.’ ”
A 25-foot Contender sportfishing boat and the 126-foot mothership “Ocean” (a Bering Sea crabber retrofitted with a 37-ton hydraulic submersible platform) are employed to land, tag and release the Great Whites.
A hand-line with a barb-less baited hook is used to lure the powerful predators. No fancy rods and reels here. The line that can hold 5,000 pounds with a number of buoys strung together to create hundreds of pounds of drag eventually wears down the shark’s resistance while shark wranglers hand-over-hand reel in the giant mammal.
The hooked shark is guided onto the cradle of the hydraulic platform and lowered from the side of the mothership to four feet below the surface. When the shark is positioned on the cradle, the platform is raised out of the water, the shark’s tail is quickly secured with a rope, and the crew scurries to work.
To keep the shark calm and relaxed during the procedure, it is blindfolded with a wet black towel. To keep the shark breathing, a long rubber hose is inserted into the tooth-filled mouth and hundreds of gallons of oxygenated seawater are pumped into the mouth and out through the gills.
The shark is measured, a DNA blood sample is taken, and, from male sharks, a sperm sample is taken. A satellite tracking tag is attached at the dorsal fin, the highest point on the shark and the body-part thought to have less blood flow to nerves and less sensitivity to the tag.
The tracking device, calibrated to relay a signal in real time every time the shark’s dorsal fin breaks the water’s surface, is built to last six years. It is capable of sending 120,000 messages. A secondary pop-up tag is also attached to the shark, and the hook and hose are removed.
For identification purposes, Frapwell photographs the shark on the platform and, when possible, in the ocean. The shark is returned to the sea in less than 20 minutes. The total number of Great Whites caught, tagged, examined and released thus far is 24.
“On each expedition,” Frapwell said, “I probably shoot anywhere from 3,000 to 5,000 images. It’s shoot, shoot, shoot.”
Next, the expedition is off to Boca Grande, Florida, in search of Great Hammerheads and Bull Sharks for season four of “Shark Men.”
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