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Credit: Marty Stalker

Yachts for Science: Sailing superyacht helps with ground-breaking shark research in the Mediterranean

31 July 2023 • Written by Sophia Wilson

The 26.6-metre sailing yacht Blue Titan has become the latest vessel to become involved in scientific research through the innovative Yachts for Science initiative. The sailing yacht was used by Virginia Tech professor Francesco Ferretti, his team and film-makers, as part of the White Shark Chase 2023 (mainly funded by the Augmentum platform), an international collaboration to find and protect the last remaining white sharks in the Mediterranean Sea.

“The Mediterranean White Sharks are among the least studied and the most endangered, they are critically endangered according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature,” explains Ferretti. “We estimate that the population has declined by 80 per cent over the past few decades. The White Shark is a top predator with a very important ecological value.”

The team included scientists and a documentary team
Credit: Ferretti Lab

To help protect the species, Ferretti is determined to track and tag sharks to understand more about their migration, eating and breeding patterns. Finding these creatures in the Mediterrean Sea is similar to finding a “needle in a haystack”, but Ferretti has highlighted the Sicilian Channel as a potential hotspot and needed support to spend time in the region.

When the initial vessel that was meant to assist the trip fell through, Blue Titan and her owner stepped in to help take Ferretti and his fellow scientists to Tunisia, Lampedusa and Malta.

For the owner of Blue Titan, Frank Peeters, it was a case of good timing. “I have been in the boating network for a long time, and one of my contacts [Yachtstory's ill Zwaans] put me in contact with Rosie O’Donell [project co-ordinator at Yachts for Science] for this project. We were about to leave from Spain to Sardinia in that period, and Tunisia is exactly the same direction,” he explains.

Ferretti and the team spent 17 days on board, using the yacht as a base and chase boat for operations. “The boat’s owner was very engaged with our project,” says Ferretti.  “They soon realised they are in an adventure, it is a chance to be at the forefront of science because we are basically writing the life history of the White Shark.

Tagging a Mako shark was a highlight of the expedition
Credit: Ferretti Lab

“For our type of work, this sailboat is suited as a support boat and floating hotel, not an operational vessel, but this support has been crucial to mitigate and respond to the issues we were encountering along the way.”

Captain Jeff Doolan of Blue Titan said despite “challenging” elements of the trip – including accommodating the scientists and filmmakers as well as large amounts of kit – it was “fun to do something different and helpful”. “I enjoyed meeting the scientists, and was interested in their work,” he added. “I also learned a lot from them. They all were top people and I have made some new friends.”

Unfortunately, due to government and bureaucratic issues, much of the work that Ferretti and his team were hoping to undertake was not possible. However, the group did succeed in satellite tagging a Mako shark for the first time in the region, undertaking eDNA water testing and deploying baited underwater video cameras. Ferretti is also confident that the trip has put in place a lot of groundwork for future expeditions.  “Our work in Tunisia is not finished. I still need to digest all the info and new intelligence acquired on this trip, but we need to replan our approach and work on multiple fronts, including engaging with high-level policy figures,” he added.

The team undertook eDNA water testing during the trip
Credit: Ferretti Lab

For Peeters the trip also proved to be a positive experience. “Working directly with the scientists and a documentary team was an adventure and something totally new for us, my wife was sad to leave at the end of our trip,” he said. “There were many highlights, but especially the commitment, passion and perseverance of the expedition team were amazing.”

The goal of Yachts For Science is to bring together yacht owners and crew with marine scientists, researchers and content creators and provide access to the oceans. It is an initiative of the Ocean Family Foundation, BOAT International, Nekton, EYOS and Arksen. Visit the website to find out more about the current projects in need of support.

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