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Swimming with Sharks

Marine biologist takes danger in stride

If Neil Hammerschlag (BSc 2002 UC) is at the beach and someone yells “Shark!” he will run into, not out of, the water. But don’t call him an adrenalin junkie. “Foremost, I’m a scientist and a conservationist,” says the 25-year-old marine biologist. “I do some fantastic and wild things with sharks, but what people don’t see is that for every one hour I spend in the water there are 24 hours behind a desk.”

His fascination with the fish near the top of the marine food chain goes back to his early childhood in South Africa, where he would sit and watch sharks being hauled in on nets that had been spread out to protect swimmers. The Hammerschlag family moved to Thornhill, Ont., when Neil was seven, and he later studied ecology and zoology at U of T. On school holidays, he volunteered in shark-research projects.

Hammerschlag studied white sharks – of Jaws fame – for his master’s degree at Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center in Dania Beach, Fl. He is now a biologist at ReefQuest Centre for Shark Research in Hollywood, Fl., and a research associate for the PEW Institute for Ocean Science in Miami. This fall, he’ll begin his PhD at the University of Miami where he’ll focus on strategies to rebuild declining shark populations around the world.

Hammerschlag feels awe and respect rather than fear around sharks, but doesn’t pretend to be blasé about his work. “Imagine what it’s like being in a boat watching 2,000 pounds of power suddenly fly out of the water with a seal in its mouth,” he says, describing his recent research on sharks’ predatory behaviour. “The only way you can deal with it, as many times as you see it, is to just scream.”

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