Two PHCC students to swim with sharks for science

In a few days, two students of Patrick Henry Community College will be heading to the Bahamas. They are not going for the typical leisurely vacation though. This will be a research expedition. They will be swimming with sharks, cleaning beaches, and conducting field research with experienced marine scientists and professors from across the country.

Last year, while watching Discovery Channel’s iconic annual “Shark Week” – a week of TV programming dedicated to sharks – PHCC’s Professor of Biology Jason Worley discovered an opportunity for his students that would be unlike any he has ever offered. From Shark Week, Worley heard about an organization called Saving the Blue – which, according to the organization’s website aims “to inspire, influence, and coach a generation of ocean advocates through hands on, in-field research activities.”

Worley found that this organization allows scientists and students from around the country to join notable marine biologists on research expeditions. These expeditions involve catching and tagging sharks and observing the sharks in their natural habitat. To be part of such an expedition would be an eye-catching line on a student’s resume and a great opportunity to get a taste of a future career.

When Worley told his students about the opportunity, Wylie Martin and Marco Diaz jumped at the chance. Both students are passionate for science and nature with aspirations to become scientists. Worley has offered both Diaz and Martin opportunities for hands-on field research experience before – but nothing quite like this.

Over their time at PHCC, Martin and Diaz have joined Worley on expeditions to catalog local reptiles and amphibians. Through these expeditions, both students have had the opportunity to publish their findings in field journals– something most college students may not get the opportunity to do until their senior level or masters level courses.

However, trekking through Virginia’s woods and handling salamanders and toads is nothing like the research they are about to embark on. They do not know yet exactly what research they’ll be conducting when they get down there, but they do know two things. First, the first day will involve extensive training on how to properly handle sharks in their natural environments. Second, they will be working with Shark Week’s notorious shark expert Dr. Tristan Guttridge.

Diaz says that he has been following Guttridge’s work – watching along as Guttridge posts updates on his social media of a hammer head shark that he has tagged. “I am really excited [to work with Guttridge] considering he is an explorer for National Geographic,” said Diaz. “I’ve seen what he’s done, and I am really excited to work alongside of someone like that.”

Although they probably won’t be handling hammer heads with Guttridge, the hodgepodge team of students, professors, and scientists that Diaz and Martin are joining will likely be placing GPS trackers on a few smaller sharks. Their focus on this trip will not be entirely on sharks though; they’re also planning to observe stingrays, sea turtles, and more.

The aim of their research will be to better understand how these marine ecosystems work and how humans can help conserve and preserve the animals’ habitats. For both Martin and Diaz, helping the animals and the ecosystem will be one of the biggest highlights of the trip.

“It will be overwhelming and exciting to do something that most people don’t get to do. You get to help a species thrive. You’re a helping hand to the animal world. The marine life wouldn’t be what it is today without the help of researchers – the people that are willing to take risks for a better world,” said Martin.

For Martin, taking a risk – swimming alongside a natural predator – also will be a chance for him to prove to himself that he has what it takes to chase his dreams.

“Getting over the fear of being in the water with a shark and actually working side by side with a marine biologist – it’ll give me motivation to push towards my goals for school and for working with natural predators in the future. I’ve always wondered ‘would I share the water with a shark?’ In a way, this is checking something off my bucket list.”

The risk of swimming with sharks has a different appeal to Diaz.  As someone who is passionate about animals, Diaz is concerned that people misunderstand sharks and their nature. He hopes that by working with sharks and learning to handle them safely, he can be an advocate for these sometimes-misunderstood creatures.

“I just want to go and experience so I can help dismantle stereotypes. Getting to educate people about things like this means so much to me.”

Like Martin, Diaz believes this experience will give him a head start for his future as he hopes to get a job as a wildlife/conservation biologist.

Ultimately, preparing his students to meet their futures goals is exactly what Jason Worley was hoping this experience would provide.

“Diaz and Martin are both great students and this will be a perfect opportunity for them to really see what field research is like with one of the world’s top scientists in his field,” said Worley.


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