Special Reports

Oil spill worries Mote shark research scientist

SARASOTA — Nick Whitney admired the two juvenile female nurse sharks lolling around in a 40,000-gallon tank at Mote Marine Laboratory’s Center for Shark Research.

“Incredibly beautiful to look at,” said the 32-year-old Bradenton resident.

Yet there was concern in his voice.

A post-doctoral scientist and specialist in shark behavioral ecology, Whitney is worried about the ongoing oil spill off Louisiana.

If it ever gets pulled into the Gulf of Mexico’s loop current, it would catastrophically impact the nurse shark population in the Keys and Dry Tortugas where Whitney and others have spent years of research.

“Mating season is coming up in a month, mid-June, early July,” Whitney said. “If the Keys are hit by the oil spill at that time, it could be devastating — and not only to this coastline

“These animals come into shallow waters to mate in large mating aggregations. It could destroy mating season for an entire year, which could be a huge hit to the population.”

One female nurse shark can have 20 to 30 pups per year, he said, so losses would be far-reaching.

“You could have an entire year where no nurse shark pups are born in this population, because mating season was disrupted by the oil spill,” he said.

“Not to mention the potential to actually kill adult sharks if they end up in the oil, in which case you could lose several years of reproduction from this population.”

His words resonate with Jeffrey Carrier, a professor of biology at Albion whose passion for shark research inspired Whitney’s career.

Carrier has spent the past 20 summers in the Keys studying sharks.

“Can a fish who’s been on the earth for 400 million years and been able to survive everything nature threw at it survive this?” he said from Lovells, Mich.

“We’ve never faced a situation like this. We know what the Exxon Valdez did. We all live in fear this spill is going to reach the coastline.”

Whitney agreed.

“Like everyone else, I’ve got my fingers crossed,” said the Jackson, Mich., native.

After a dozen years of distinguished shark research, the recent Albion College “Top 10 in 10” Young Alumni Award winner has earned almost $200,000 in competitive grants.

He has also been published in numerous periodicals, Hawaii Skin Diver and Environmental Conservation among them.

“I’ve been at Albion 32 years and I might get a student like Nick once every decade,” said Carrier, a Jacksonville Beach native. “He has risen to this type of work.”

Whitney has even consulted on children’s books about sharks.

Which might make his 3-year-old Owen appreciate Dad’s job more.

“He tells me sharks are scary, sharks are bad,” Nick Whitney said. “I’m constantly telling him sharks are beautiful animals. ‘No, Daddy. Sharks are mean.’”

It sounded familiar to the father of two.

Whitney recalls family vacations at the North Carolina shore.

While the others swam, he stayed dry.

“I’d seen ‘Jaws,’ ” Whitney said.

“Sharks can seem scary and it’s normal for kids to get hung up on that. But I like to tell kids how sharks are magnificent animals with senses we don’t have. How fast they can swim. Sharks are symbolic of being able to get out in the water and have a true wild place still accessible to humans.

“Sharks are cool.”

Vin Mannix, local columnist, can be reached at 941-745-7055, or Bradenton Herald, P.O. Box 921, Bradenton, FL 34206 or e-mail him at vmannix@bradenton.com. Please include a phone number for verification.