If You Think You're Tough, Watch This Man Wrestle Sharks! July 29 2016
Elliot Sudal went viral last summer. This year, things are different.
Elliot Sudal caught a few sharks from the shoreline this morning. Got them on the line, reeled them in, pulled them onto the sand, affixed a tag to their backs. Then, after a quick measurement and a quicker picture, back into the Nantucket waters they went. He's at 49 sharks this year. So far.
Last summer, a video of Sudal, 27, wrestling a shark went viral, getting picked by Good Morning America and pulling in over 3 million hits on YouTube. He flashed across computer screens, the bro in the Chubbies and the shark-tooth necklace—made from the tooth of a 25-footer strung with the first line he ever caught a shark on—with an apparent death wish. Angry emailers told him they hoped "a shark drags you underwater and takes a photo of you." Another asked asked, "How loud was your Nickelback playing in your pickup truck?"
Virality brought on other changes. For one, Sudal got tapped by NOAA to put his talent to use. Now, he collects data from the sharks he catches, tagging them for research purposes. And this summer he got $1,500 shark bite insurance so the Snapchatting beach hoards can't sue him should anything horrible happen, god forbid.
Sudal can't do this forever. When he stops, he'll be immortalized as the Saltwater Cowboy, the Shark Wrestler, and, if things go the way he wants, an author with a TV show. But for now, it's as good—and as ballsy, and as extreme—a gig as any. We talked to him about his work.
ESQ: What's your day job?
Sudal: This is it. I take people shark fishing. The last couple years I've driven a tuna boat for a family—the guy's a hedge-fund dude, so the tuna boat is like his toy. This year, I was like, well, I'll just lead charters from the beach. I gotta put in all these tags anyway, and I can make money to do it, and it gives me an opportunity to talk to people about everything we're doing with these tags.
Why do people object to it?
I have to bring a shark out of the water for 45 seconds to a minute to get the hook out, put the tag in, get a measurement, take a blood sample, and get it back in. And I do move them by their tail two or three feet, and some people think it's the most brutal, horrible thing in the world. But in reality, when we are tagging sharks, it's way safer than in a boat. When I get the hook out, it's on soft, wet sand. The shark is still getting waves washing over it. I can promote the tagging aspect and certain things like the style of circle hook, for example—they're much safer, they don't gut hook the shark ever.
Can you walk me through a catch?
I have gigantic, 15-foot rods with huge reels and about a 100-pound cast line on them. So I'll cast out these lines with a big chunk of blue fish or whatever on a circle hook for bait, and I'll stick them in the sand. I'll line up three rods. And when the shark hits one, you'll just see a 15-foot rod just straight and narrow—they're ripping off the line. Totally exciting.
It usually takes anywhere from five to 20 minutes to get the shark to the beach. At that point, I jump into the water, grab her, and sort of gently move her backwards, remove the hook, do what I need to do, and then I let her go.
What's the purpose of the tag?
This program that I'm working now, the NOAA Apex Predators tagging program, it's the largest shark tagging project in the world. It's been going on for 55 years and primarily tracks sharks in the Atlantic Ocean. You put a tag in their back, which essentially gives the shark a serial number. If it's been captured or whatever, found again, you can see where the shark's traveled from. In the last 55 years, they've tagged 300,000 sharks. You can compare things like how water quality or water temperature affect why certain species are migrating up to Nantucket or Maine, or wherever they're going.
The key is to detect the places where they're reproducing. The sharks I'm catching here are 98 percent female. So we're trying to prove Nantucket Sound is indeed a place where they're having their pups, and if we can prove this, we could get some of the commercial fishing pushed out of here. Because there are certain draggers that come through this area, and when they do, they just net up everything on the bottom, so I'm sure they kill thousands and thousands of sharks each year.
I mean, this is the most extreme form of beach fishing you can possibly get. Catching a 300-pound-plus animal, just from a recreational, sport fishing aspect, is as good as it gets. But adding the tagging is pretty cool because it adds a conservation element, and it is valuable data. The other day, we got a shark that was tagged 13 years ago, and grew 63 centimeters in 13 years. It's a piece of the puzzle figuring out how we're impacting shark populations around the country.
Seems pretty dangerous. Have you had any close calls?
Yeah. This is dumb, but I was cutting up a piece of blue fish, and it sliced underneath my nail, and I've just been in and out of the hospital for the last few days with fish poisoning. It's kind of funny because I've caught hundreds of sharks, and all the sudden, a dead blue fish sent me to the hospital. I've not been bit.
If you were to get bitten, would that change your mind about doing this?
Probably. I mean, no one would feel sorry for me. I have a shark-bite kit in my car: hydrogen peroxide, gauze. That would hold me over until I got to the hospital. It would be bad, especially from a tiger shark, which can bite a sea turtle in half. That's like two inches of bone. Do you know hard it is to bite a pistachio? Imagine a sea turtle shell. We have a ton of great whites around Cape Cod and the islands right now. I see all these seals that have just been chomped in half by great whites washing up. I measured a 22-inch bite mark the other day. The great white is the most powerful bite in the animal planet. I would probably be not doing this as much if I got bit.
They feel like sandpaper, first of all. I think a lot of people think they'd be slimy, but they feel literally like sandpaper, and when they rub against you, it's like your skin is sanded off. The big ones especially are really lazy when you get them up on the beach. The smaller ones, the five- and 10-footers, will really go crazy. If you're going to get bit by a shark, it's probably going to be by a four- or five-footer because they're so fast. They can reach around their tail. An eight- to 10-foot shark, 500 pounds, just kinda can't move that fast. Their brains are the size of a pea; there's not much going on. They don't feel pain. They have a goofy look on their face most of the time. They don't seem like these horrible killers that people tend to think.
I read that because of climate change, the warming oceans are pushing sharks further north every year, and scientists have expected that 2016 is going to be a pretty big year for shark attacks.
It's actually a record low for shark attacks so far this year. The average is 75 to 100 a year worldwide. This year, it's at 20 or 30 so far, according to the article that I read.
The changing ocean temperatures: is that something you can monitor through these tags?
I've caught sharks in water temperatures from 57 degrees all the way to 85 degrees. They are very sensitive, but moreso to pollution. This species of shark originally reproduced in the Long Island Sound hundreds of years ago. As the water quality got so bad from all the pollution, they migrated to the Chesapeake Bay, where they reproduce now. I guess that's been getting worse down there, so researchers think they might be coming up and reproducing in Cape Cod and around the islands in Nantucket Sound. The sharks I'm catching are huge—I've had at least 12 sharks that have broken the state record. And sharks live 40 to 50 years. It'd be really cool to prove they are reproducing here.
So, what's next?
We filmed a really crazy show pilot and have some funding behind it. My girlfriend's involved; she represents Maine in the USA pageant. I travel around the country trying to make it doing what I love. It's not exactly easy to make a ton of money catching sharks, but you get sponsors, you take people out. We've been talking to some networks, hoping to go fulltime. That's the dream, for now.