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.