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The Thirteenth Pup Or How I Became A Shark Midwife

Text and photography by Doug Perrine

 

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Live Birth of Lemon Shark
live birth of lemon shark, Negaprion brevirostris, pup emerges tail first, wrapped in chorionic membranes Bahamas, Caribbean Sea, Atlantic Ocean
Image #: 001956

In these days of "stalkarazzi" and tabloid journalism, admitting to being a photojournalist is something akin to announcing that you have AIDS, but it’s a title that was once worn with pride. Journalists commanded respect, and adhered to a code of professional conduct. Some still do. One of the prime tenets of this code is "non-involvement." A journalist is supposed to report on an event, not participate in it. I’ve always tried to follow this rule, especially when it comes to dangerous activities, and particularly those involving the possibility of loss of major body parts.

I include the handling of mature lemon sharks in this category. When photographing the activities of the gonzo shark research unit at the University of Miami, I always tried to leave the shark handling to the pros, and stay on the other side of the lens. My resolve to maintain professional standards in this regard was reinforced after seeing an eight-footer swing around in the blink of an eye and snap at team leader Dr. Samuel Gruber’s elbow, missing it by millimeters as he yanked it back out of the way.

Lemon sharks pose no danger to divers when left undisturbed, but if harassed they can be one of the most vindictive and dangerous of all shark species. They are one of the few species which, instead of fleeing after release, will sometimes double back to attack the person who has just been handling them. Their spiky curved dentition is designed for seizing whole fish, not carving up large prey, but can deliver a vicious injury when used in self-defense.

One of the research projects that the U.M. team was working on when I was there was hormone studies. It was interesting to find out that sharks use some of the same hormones as humans, and that levels track changes in reproductive status, just as they do in our own bodies. One large male bull shark that the team caught during the breeding season had the highest level of testosterone ever measured in any animal. Since attacks by reef sharks in the Bahamas peak during the breeding season, it was an obvious guess that there might be a connection between hormonal levels and aggression.

The team was particularly eager to get a hormone profile on a pregnant lemon shark to compare with measurements that had been taken outside of the breeding season. This required taking both blood and urine samples. The lemon sharks, for some reason, failed to appreciate the important contribution they were making to our scientific knowledge, so obtaining the samples usually involved a certain amount of "wrangling" and stress on all parties concerned.

Over the years, Dr. Gruber and his team had managed to pinpoint both the timing and the location of the lemon sharks’ breeding activities in the Bimini lagoon, so getting a lemon shark in the required condition was merely a matter of stretching a baited longline across the entrance to the breeding lagoon during the pupping season. Mature females enter the lagoon only to give birth, so any shark that was caught should be full term. Lemon sharks deliver an average of a dozen pups every other year. The pups would be ready to live independently by the time the mother entered the lagoon. But they would be at risk if the mother died from handling stress before delivering them,. So a decision was made to deliver the baby sharks before the mother was brought to the research boat for the samples to be taken. The team had "midwifed" sharks before, and in fact veteran u.w. cinematographer Stan Waterman was on hand to film the event for an Audubon television special on sharks. My job was to take still photographs, although I also ended up shooting some video that was shown on an NBC News report on the event.

When the 2-way radio crackled the news that there was a pregnant female on one of the lines, we went racing to the scene. We found a 9-foot lemon shark with a large swollen belly, resting quietly on the bottom (lemon sharks are one of the few species that can ventilate their gills while lying still). She looked peaceful at the moment, but I knew that the long line leader would allow her to move in about an 8-foot radius if she started swimming again. I also knew that most sharks don’t like having their tails touched. I wasn’t sure how she would react to an intrusion into a more intimate area of her body, normally reserved only for male sharks, but I knew something about how our own species reacts when this area is approached without permission. I don’t want to draw too many inappropriate parallels between sharks and humans, but it had also occurred to me that a shark in this condition might be experiencing some degree of moodiness. Suffice it to say that this was one occasion where I was particularly content to keep my hands out of places they don’t belong and leave the "sciencing" to the scientists.

Stan had his cameras set up and rolling in no time, and I set about taking stills from a respectful distance. The first thing we noticed was an unusually large number of remoras on the shark’s body. Dr. Gruber’s team had previously documented that these hitch-hiking fish gather on pregnant sharks and feed on the afterbirth that is expelled with each pup. Requiem sharks, including lemons, nourish their young through a placenta and umbilical cord before giving live birth, much as mammals do. The pups wriggle out of the mother’s birth canal tail first and swim away, but sometimes the umbilical cord doesn’t break, and they bounce back as if on the end of a rubber band. Remoras can actually assist the birth process by biting through the umbilical cord as they feed. These remoras, which usually just stick to their host like a tumor, were obviously excited about the upcoming event, and were doing a "shimmy dance" on the shark’s flank.

The pups, however, were less enthusiastic. They were quite content inside their mother’s womb, and had not received whatever signals from the mother were necessary to convince them to exit. Somebody was going to have to forcibly remove them from their place of refuge. Fortunately, baby lemon sharks do not feed upon each other inside the womb, as do sand tiger sharks. So whoever volunteered to deliver the pups wouldn’t have to worry about getting fingers nipped by the little mouths on the inside. On the other hand, there was a very large mouth on the outside, connected to a brain that certainly would have no comprehension that the person violating her body was trying to save her babies. I put a camera in front of my face and waited for one of Dr. Gruber’s students to make the first move.

After a bit of hesitation, one of the students gingerly lifted the shark’s tail and inserted a hand into the birth canal. A moment later he withdrew it, clutching a squirming 2-foot miniature lemon shark. The pup’s gender was noted and it was released to swim into the mangroves and hide. After the moment of birth, baby sharks will not see their mothers again. Or if they do, it will be a fearful occasion, as large sharks are prone to eat small sharks whenever the opportunity arises.

Stan’s camera cranked away as shark after baby shark was pulled from the distended abdomen of the female lying on the seafloor in front of us. The mood had become festive, and the students were taking turns playing midwife. After awhile, one of the photographers put down his camera and delivered a pup. Then Stan himself got into the mood and plucked a couple of babies from the cooperative mother. But each pup was a little deeper into the womb than the one before it. Whereas the first delivery had required a penetration barely deeper than the wrist, subsequent efforts demanded delving in all the way to the elbow and beyond.

Finally, after 11 sharks had been released, the volunteers were stymied. They could feel another pup inside, but no one could get a good grip on it to pull it out. Although sharks’ skin is as rough as sandpaper (the skin is covered with tiny teeth called "dermal denticles"), in the womb they are covered with a protective membrane which makes them as slippery as a boat deck drenched in suntan oil. And, while the lining of the mother’s birth canal was just as slippery smooth, the opening was surrounded by skin armored with those little denticles. The volunteers were getting "road burns" from repeatedly scraping against the rough skin while reaching in after the recalcitrant pup.

An impromptu conference was held at the surface to discuss the impasse, and it was decided that somebody with small hands and a narrow wrist was needed to enter the deepest part of the womb. Suddenly all eyes were focused on me. I lifted both cameras in front of my face and tried to look inconspicuous, but it was no use. Up to this point my small size had proved advantageous in avoided both dangerous duty and heavy labor, but now the tables were turned. Over my loud protests of violation of journalistic integrity, I was relieved of my cameras and ushered towards the resting shark.

I had never even tried to imagine what the inside of a shark would feel like. If pressed to come up with an adjective, I’m sure the word "comfortable" would not have come to mind. Yet that is exactly how my arm felt inside the soft, smooth birth canal. I could see why the baby shark didn’t want to leave this cozy place for the cruel, dangerous ocean. Time and again I managed to grasp the pup’s tail and pull it part way out only to have it wriggle free and squirm back into the deepest part of the womb. Through all of this the mother remained strangely calm and relaxed. Eventually, I admitted defeat. Someone - I forget who - managed to get the twelfth pup out, and all the volunteers dashed to the research boat to prepare the equipment, leaving me alone with the shark.

Twelve pups had been expected. Twelve were delivered. But a gnawing feeling caught up with me. After the last delivery, nobody had reached in again to confirm that the womb was empty. The sun had just dipped below the horizon and I was alone in the dark with a 9-foot "man-eater." If I provoked an attack now, there would be no one to help me. But the shark had been cooperative so far, and I felt I owed it to her to make sure her pups were all safe. I reached inside, and sure enough, there was another tiny body where my fingers could barely touch it. Five times I got the pup more than half way out, and five times it slipped out of my grasp and retreated to the far wall of the womb. Just as the crew returned to drag the mother away I managed to finally pull the last pup free, and even more miraculously, was able to grab my camera and snap a picture just as it came out.

After the samples were taken the mother was released. The volunteers had to swim her to revive her, but she finally swam away on her own. I like to think that she has been returning to the lagoon every two years since to drop another baker’s dozen of pups - this time without human interference. Sharks are under such terrible pressure from overfishing these days, and have so little ability to compensate, due to their low reproductive rate, that every pup counts.