Teacher at Sea: Kathleen Gibson reflects on summer studying sharks

They’re all teeth and tail.

That’s how Kathleen Gibson describes the sharks she encountered this summer in the Gulf of Mexico, where she was stationed on a 160-foot research vessel and tasked with removing silvery fist-sized hooks from the mouths of small sharks.

Most of the sharks were, from their noses to the tips of their tails, only several feet long — the world’s largest sharks are closer to 40 feet. Gibson was given chunky gloves and taught to remove the hooks without harming herself or the shark. For two weeks, she spent hours each day grazing the barbed jaws of the ocean’s most fearsome inhabitant.

But Gibson did it all in the name of science. An environmental science, marine science and biology teacher at Trumbull High School, she was selected to be a 2015 Teacher at Sea with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Gibson participated in NOAA’s shark and red snapper study off the coast of Pascagoula, Miss. in July, an opportunity for growth that she relished.

“I had never been to Mississippi,” she said. “I had never been on a boat for more than 24 hours. I had certainly never worked intimately with sharks or done a field research study with sharks. I had worked with more static things like plants and snails.”

“You get to a point in your life and career that if you’re going to do something, you better give it a shot,” she said.

NOAA Fisheries has been studying sharks in the Gulf since 1995, according to Gibson. The study is part of a long-term survey to gather broad population data that informs local fishing practices and conservation. NOAA has other studies that, for instance, look at New England cod and Alaskan pollock.

In total, Teacher at Sea accepts only 20 teachers who are assigned to different ships and coasts, doing things like helping map the sea floor or studying climate indicators, usually areas in which the educators have little knowledge.

“I’m not a shark expert,” Gibson said. “I work with little fish in Long Island Sound. We mess around in the tide pool. I had never been on the working crew or had a shark thrust in my hand.”

Part of the requirement for Teacher at Sea is sharing the trip with others. Gibson had to blog and post photos and videos from her time aboard Oregon II. She’s also planning a lesson for her students, who are sophomores and seniors.

Man versus fish

Gibson was one of several volunteers on a ship of 31, which included 11 scientists as well as crew members who keep the ship running and specialized fishermen who catch sharks and return them quickly to the ocean.

She dealt mostly with Atlantic sharpnose sharks, which are smaller than four feet. But her crew also caught a hammerhead, known for its flat head and curiously wide-set eyes, as well as a “nurse” shark in a coppery hue. The smaller sharks are brought up on deck and processed, but the bigger ones are measured in a cradle that provides a barrier between man and fish.

Shark flesh is generally not palatable — it contains nitrogen that turns to ammonia when they’re killed — but certain sharks are prized for their fins, which are a delicacy in some Asian countries. Sharks can be robbed of their fins and tossed back into the ocean, where, unable to swim, they sink and die.

As such, sharks cannot be brought to shore in the United States without their fins attached, a restriction that has served to protect sandbar sharks that are valued for their large dorsal fins, according to Gibson.

Walking sideways, and other challenges

While she absorbed a lot of science at sea, other lessons were more practical, such as learning how to walk on ship.

“I learned to walked sideways,” she said. “Your upper body stays the same.”

The overall lesson, though, was one in accepting challenges.

“Particularly with my seniors,” Gibson said, “we’ve worked with them for all these years and we ask them to challenge themselves and to write their essays and to try something different or to be open. I really in a way felt I needed to take a risk. It was a risk to apply and it was a bit of a risk to go.”

“I think that it’s important to put yourself in that position to say, ‘You’re going to college? Well, I’m going to sea. And I’m going to see some sharks,’” she said.