Shark Week: The Podcast

S2 Ep.5: Dr. Pimple Popper Learns From Shark Skin

Episode Summary

Dr. Austin Gallagher and Dr. Pimple Popper are on a mission to explore the world of shark skin, and understand how they can apply that science to treat human skin issues. Dr. Gallagher shares what we can learn from shark for human treatments.

Episode Notes

Dr. Austin Gallagher and Dr. Pimple Popper are on a mission to explore the world of shark skin, and understand how they can apply that science to treat human skin issues. Dr. Gallagher shares what we can learn from shark for human treatments.

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Find episode transcript here:

Episode Transcription

[MUSIC PLAYING] LUKE TIPPLE: Good day, everyone. I'm Luke Tipple. Happy Shark Week and welcome to The Daily Bite, the show where we go behind the scenes with the stars of Shark Week and talk about one of our favorite subjects, sharks. Today we're welcoming back Dr. Austin Gallagher to chat about his research trip with a pimple popping special guest. Let's check it out.




SPEAKER 1: One reason sharks have not only survived for more than 400 million years but have thrived is their skin. It's a thick complex suit of armor that not only protects them from predators, but also has remarkable ways of staying clean and healthy. Which makes me wonder, can we learn from these sharkskin secrets and apply them in a way to help our own skin?


And of course, to answer one of my most important questions, do sharks get pimples? Because if they do, I'm ready to pop them.


LUKE TIPPLE: And that looks like some fun in Turks and Caicos. Dr. Austin Gallagher, welcome back to The Daily Bite, mate.


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: Good to see you, Luke. Thanks for having me, man.


LUKE TIPPLE: So last time we chatted to you, you were hanging out a few feet under the water in Bahamas in submarines, getting beaten about by tiger sharks. And now you're popping pimples in the Turks and Caicos. What brought that on?


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: It's a great question, and we've really been trying to find new places to expand our research in the general Caribbean. And ironically enough it's the tiger sharks again that took us down to Turks and Caicos through some of the movements we saw from Bahama sharks. And we began our work in Turks and Caicos about a year and a half ago.


And one of the things, Luke, that we learned was that this place is loaded with sharks. It's really an incredible place to do work. So it made a lot of sense for us to start doing some of our investigations for Shark Week down there.


LUKE TIPPLE: That's awesome. Obviously, that wasn't covered in the show, but talk to me about the tiger sharks and the movements up there.


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: Sure. So the Turks and Caicos is actually kind of part of the Bahamas. It's sort of this general region called the Lucayan Sea or the Lucayan Archipelago. And as we know from all the work that we've done together in the Bahamas, you have these really shallow banks that formed over many ice ages. And then you have all these islands that are scattered about that.


Turks and Caicos is the same thing, except it's a lot smaller. It's just kind of one or two small sets of islands. And it's just southeast-- about 150 miles southeast of the southern part of the Bahamas. So it's right in the range of a lot of the southerly movements of our tiger sharks.


We saw them going down there and we said we've got to get down there and see what's going on. Is it a refuge for tiger sharks? And then when we started doing underwater camera surveys. We learn that wasn't just tigers that-- it was a really healthy overall population of sharks there, which is really awesome.


LUKE TIPPLE: So in the-- I've been down there and I saw on the footage from the show, it's a lot of fringing reef-type area and the reef look like it was in kind of poor condition. Is that just where you are diving or is it just kind of a regional thing down there?


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: Well, actually the reefs in general in Turks are pretty good. In fact--


LUKE TIPPLE: They are? OK.


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: Generally much better than the Bahamas, yeah. So I think a couple of the dive sites that we filmed on during that show maybe aren't as great as some of the other ones. But in general, Turks and Caicos is kind of like the French Polynesia if the Bahamas is the Hawaii.


So just a lot less people, more remote, less tourists. And because of that, you have a, generally, healthier ecosystem. And some of the healthiest reefs I've seen in the Caribbean period are actually in Turks and Caicos.


LUKE TIPPLE: Oh, that's amazing. So that kind of leads to the next question of why the tiger sharks will be traveling down? Do you think they're following the water temperatures or food availability? Or just more social migrations?


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: Good question. What I think it relates to habitat. One of the things that I've learned more over the years is that, really, always comes back to habitat. And for tiger sharks we know that they do migrations. They do these long distance journeys and they'll swim over really deep water.


But they really are a shallow water shark. And they love shallow banks and they love seagrass meadows. We know that from Tiger Beach, we know that from Australia, where you're from, the West Coast of Australia.


Turks and Caicos is the same thing. I remember looking at it-- at this map and seeing this beautiful shallow seagrass bank that's probably 50, 60 square miles, and just loaded with tiger sharks there. And then it drops off, just like it does in the Bahamas, to really deep water.


So I do think there are some connections between Bermuda, Bahamas, and Turks, but it seems like it's only the females that are doing that.


LUKE TIPPLE: So how long you've been operating down there? You said about a year now?


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: Yeah, we started in earnest in September 2020. A little delayed, obviously, because of the global pandemic, but we were able to really get a lot of work done there. I think we've done six or seven research expeditions.


And the big project that we've been working on, for starters, was a national survey of the shark and ray populations. That was sort of contracted by the government of the Turks and Caicos because they want to create a big protected area, very similar to what we see in the Bahamas. But they had no baseline data.


So that's why they brought us in and we started collecting some of that information. And one thing led to the other and we started finding tiger sharks, hammerheads. And I will be honest, Luke, I think that Turks and Caicos could actually give the Bahamas a run for its money in terms of the overall abundance and diversity of sharks.


LUKE TIPPLE: Wow. And before we start sending people down there, though, we should probably get that area protected. Are there no protections at all against shark and ray fishing down there?


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: There are some right now that are limiting certain types of commercial fishing.




AUSTIN GALLAGHER: However, there is still some local consumption that's allowed and it's very lax in terms of how it's being managed. I think, really, what these countries in the Caribbean place where I would do a lot of work starting to realize now is that marine protected areas are not just great for the environment, and obviously for the species, but they can be marketing tools as well.




AUSTIN GALLAGHER: And these countries, you know that from the Shark Free Marina Initiative--




AUSTIN GALLAGHER: These countries rely so heavily on tourism that if there aren't healthy, clean reefs there, the sharks are a big part of that, their tourism product is going to really suffer.


LUKE TIPPLE: Yeah, I mean, when you look at Bahamas and you look at several studies that have come out, both on a biological and also financial standpoint, when the value of a single shark is put in the somewhat debatable but hundreds of thousands of dollars to the local economy, it really kind of makes sense for countries like Turks to also kind of adopt that model if it is available to them.


And if you say that those sharks are there and you're able to establish the seasonality of those aggregations, could be really onto something down there. Is there foreign fishing influence in the area as well?


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: Very, very low levels of foreign fishing. So yeah, it's almost kind of like this oasis in the middle of the-- middle Northern Caribbean. And I'm really fortunate to work there and to come into a place where not a lot of work had been done previously, which is kind of exciting because you can-- being the first isn't always the most important thing, but being able to describe and explore is, I think, the most important and exciting part of science.


LUKE TIPPLE: So when Discovery approached you this year and said, hey, we've got Dr. Pimple Popper, she wants to go down and see some sharks, did you suggest Turks as the location because you are there doing your research already?


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: Exactly. Yeah, I think that with all the shows and the programming and productions over the last 18 months, we've all had to pivot and be very flexible with rules and travel bans and openings and closings and all these things. So we've had to be really adaptive.


And it looked like the Bahamas, which is ground zero for a lot of great productions for Shark Week that we've done, was going to be maybe a little bit more challenging this year for a variety of different reasons. Some of the ones that I just listed. So I was talking with the various production companies for this show and I suggested Turks.


And I said, look, I was actually down there on an expedition when I said, I think this is something we should really look at. And we're able to bring a couple of productions down there this year, actually, including Pimple Popper. And film some really amazing stuff that's never been seen before.


LUKE TIPPLE: Yes, it's always great to see new locations get covered in Shark Week programming, not just for the viewer experience but also for our knowledge of different areas, which I think is amazing. How were her dive skills when she got down to you?


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: Sandra was great. It was so much fun to work with her. She has incredible energy, she's obviously incredible on camera, and she does a lot of that with her show, Dr. Pimple Popper. But she just brought a great energy and she was willing to try everything.


She had dove before so she was very comfortable in the water. Obviously, anytime someone's using full face mask for the first time there's a little bit of a learning curve there, but she did really well and she was awesome. So after the first couple of dives she was a pro.


And it was good because those sharks down in Turks and Caicos, and we mostly saw reef sharks on this show, but they're not used to people per se. There's no baiting or chumming that happens they're naturally like we see in certain places in the Bahamas. So they're very curious, they're very bold, and they see humans in a different way than they do in places like the Bahamas. So there were a few really close calls for sure.


LUKE TIPPLE: Yeah. It actually looked like it, yeah. And the reef sharks were certainly-- seem to be pretty amped up in at least a few of those scenarios, perhaps with tidal movement or bait in the water or-- is that what you're seeing down there?


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: Definitely, yeah. I mean, I'll be honest with you. Dove with a lot of big sharks over the years. And reef sharks are the ones I trust the least. They're not the biggest, the baddest, the scariest, but they're the most unpredictable.


They live a really rough and tumble life. There is usually multiple reef sharks on a given reef, so they're always in competition with one another.




AUSTIN GALLAGHER: So you really got to watch yourself with reef sharks, honestly. And there were a few situations on the show that were really sketchy. And there was this one dive where there was a big tidal flux and all this sand was coming out the bank, the visibility dropped, the sharks know that right away. And we got buzzed.


Literally, I had a reef shark hit my OTS mask. It didn't see me until the last second and I was right there next to Dr. Lee and we were like, OK, we got to get out of here now. So that was the final dive of the show, which was ironic. But yeah, it was pretty exciting.


LUKE TIPPLE: Yeah. People are always so quick to write off reef sharks in terms of like, oh, we want to see the big bad ones. But honestly, some of the scariest experiences I've had all around the world, but particularly in areas where they might be sort of very locally habituated to some human activity, can be some of the scariest, for sure.


Where you are diving, do you see any adaptation from the reef sharks to things like boats pulling up to fishing lines in the water to human activity? I say that because I can-- in Bahamas, like the shoot we just did this year, we had one population of reef sharks that were very used to seeing-- feeding on the surface from tourist boats.


So you splash a fin in that water and they'll be on it like that. Versus 20, 30 miles away and they're used to getting fed down below or seeing people on the reef and it's no big deal. You can swim around with them on the surface all day long, but I wouldn't be doing it at this other location, for example.


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: Totally. Yeah, you hit the nail on the head there, Luke. And places like the Bahamas, yeah, the reef sharks are accustomed. They hear the boat, they're already circling before you even drop anchor. However, the difference between a place like the reef sharks in the Bahamas and reef sharks in Turks is in Turks and Caicos they'll show up at the surface when you start putting bait in the water, but they're a lot more amped up and they're genuinely excited because they've never seen that before.


They're not used to seeing bait. So they kind of think, oh my god, this is unbelievable. And they just start swimming super fast and erratic and buzzing the divers before we even got in. So we had to even calm down a couple of the dives before any of us jumped in because we had five or six reef sharks. And they're are only six or seven foot long, but if they're in an aggressive, predatory mode, you jump in the water, that might not be great. So we had to be careful


LUKE TIPPLE: Yeah, I mean, it speaks to the scarcity of the-- I would say foreign activity, in the water, with people not going there and baiting or bringing them in. For them to be switched on into that predator mode right away, just kind of shows you what type of animal and the situation that they live in.


Which is pretty cool for us because we know we can go get a good behavior right away, but you certainly have to be careful.


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: Totally. Yeah, I mean, I'm sure you've probably experienced the same thing if you've dove any remote atolls in the Pacific when you see--


LUKE TIPPLE: Totally, yeah.


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: A gray reef or a silver tip and the thing is super charged up and it's just because you're completely foreign to it.


LUKE TIPPLE: Oh yeah. I remember some like out in Majuro, for example, where-- diving in places that do see dive boats, but they're typically not there for sharks. And they're certainly not baiting like we were. And as soon as we put anything in the water like, oh. These things are charged.


It was immediate. It was kind of crazy.


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: Reef sharks, they're killers. I mean, let's just be honest they kill fish just like any other shark does and they have really sharp teeth. They look kind of cute and-- really cute with their mouths closed where you don't see the teeth. But I can tell you for sure that they have very sharp teeth and you won't suffer anything, really, traumatic from a reef shark bite, but you don't want to get bit by reef shark.


LUKE TIPPLE: Yeah. So the tie-in with shark skin and Sandra's work obviously makes a lot of sense, right? She's obviously very curious in anything to do with dermal layers. Can you explain to people the make up of a shark skin and why it's so interesting?


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: Sharks have very interesting skin patterns. They are dictated by the types of habitats they live in, by what kind of pace of life they have, if they're a fast shark or a slow shark, if they're top predator. And if you zoom in on the skin of a shark it will look like lots of little teeth in a kind of a sandpaper type gritty formation.


And the term is literally dermal denticles, which means skin teeth. So they have all these small little, kind of keratinized, calcified, little teeth on their skin that help them swim through the water quickly. They reduce drag, they reduce the attachment of parasites to a certain extent. And it just makes them really, really efficient in the water.


And even some of their skin is very thick to promote wound healing and avoid trauma from bites and things like that as well. So they have this really incredible skin pattern that they've obviously evolved. And anybody who's ever felt a shark, if you feel it one way it's still rough, but it's smoother than if you go the other way, against the grain. And you can actually rip some of your own skin off if you rub up against the shark.


LUKE TIPPLE: Yeah. Did the study of skin on this particular expedition tie into any of the research you're doing? Or is it more sort of like, let's teach people about this amazing property that sharks have?


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: Kind of a little bit of a combination because all the time when we're doing our work or we're diving with sharks we don't often zoom in on something like that. Really, a part of their body. And when you really start looking at it, you realize that it's an incredibly important sort of gateway for their overall health and their ecology.


And whether we're talking about [INAUDIBLE] or cuts or lacerations or mating wounds, these are really important things that these animals have to go through and promote and survive. So it was really cool to kind of zoom in on that a little bit. Also learn from Sandra, on some of her work, and to look at some of the parallels between sharks and human skin.


Because sharks obviously came before humans did, in terms of evolution. And it's very primitive, but it's amazing because when we do procedures on sharks like implanting tags or taking biopsies, they heal so much more quickly than humans do. And humans are a much more advanced species, evolutionarily.


So that was pretty exciting. And then she was able to help us collect some samples for our work. And we were able to get some skin impressions as well, which was a lot of fun.


LUKE TIPPLE: Yeah, I want to show those skin impressions in just a sec. But one of the cool things I thought that you highlighted is something that we don't see a lot of, at least in this context. You were talking about cleaning stations a lot and going and visiting these cleaning stations and seeing sort of symbiotic relationship.


Could you explain exactly what that is? Because usually when we see it, it's just as a filming opportunity. But you guys were there to see the actual process.


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: Sure. Yeah, cleaning stations are a lot more common and widespread than you think in the Caribbean. And these sharks will kind of swim down right on top of the reef and it's sort of like ringing the dinner bell for all sorts of small fishes, whether we're talking about blennies and gobies, or even bigger things like snapper or grouper, they don't actually swim up to the shark and take a little peck off of the skin to get a piece of algae or get a parasite or to just scrape off whatever type of debris might be there.


So the cleaning stations are pretty widespread, and it happens so quickly that we often think about these cleaning stations from big blue chip productions, where you have these big sharks that are just floating in the current and you have fish swimming through their mouth and their gills, which does happen by the way. But it's often a lot more simple than that. It can be just a fly-by, touch and go, shark coming down, bumping off. And it's a symbiotic relationship for sure.


The sharks don't go after those fish, don't try to eat them because they are getting a service, which is a free cleaning.


LUKE TIPPLE: One of the interesting things we learned was how researchers are taking skin samples from living sharks and letting them go about their day, but still getting the data. Let's check out that process.


SPEAKER 1: Looks like we got a reef shark.




SPEAKER 1: Look at the sharks up here. Look at all these [INAUDIBLE]. Shark is secure. I'm going to need you to just kind of watching the head and watching the surge, because if it comes on the boat, we're in trouble.


SPEAKER 2: What? This is insane.


SPEAKER 1: All right, now we're ready for skin impression.


SPEAKER 3: All right, coming behind you here. So we've got this dental impression that's real here. It's a quick-setting mold material. That's going to allow us to study the dermal denticles of the shark skin.


SPEAKER 1: And how long do you need to keep it on the shark for?


SPEAKER 3: About 30 seconds. We'll press it to the skin. OK, Dr. Lisa. If you want to press that to the skin right there.




SPEAKER 2: Oh. 10 seconds yet?


LUKE TIPPLE: So I'm interested in the implications of taking those impressions from the sharks. Can you walk us through the process of bringing in a shark, releasing it alive and healthy and happy, but also getting that data?


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: Sure. So the field that we're talking about here is called bio-inspiration. And this basically refers to when we as humans are inspired by other organisms and other species and we can create products or services or tools that are inspired by nature. So think about swimsuits. They're sometimes modeled after sharks or airplanes, which also look like sharks.


Things like that. You even have household cleaning activities and vacuum cleaners that are inspired by these animals. And it's pretty interesting what we were doing because one of the things about shark skin that's so legendary is that it really does reduce drag and it doesn't-- animals and parasites don't attached to it.


So when you think about human applications, things like surgeries and healing from surgeries, maybe we can try and mold bandages and gauze and post-surgical wraps and things like that around the properties that we see in shark skin. Maybe that will help humans heal up more quickly, et cetera, things like that.


So for the show, we collaborated with a group called Shark Lit and they are really one of the pioneers and in bio-inspiration and materials from sharks. And in order to get those samples we needed to get really close to these animals. So we had to actually tag a couple.


We caught them safely, something we've done all the time, bring them to the side of the boat. And we have this really interesting kind of resin epoxy that you squirt out of this kind of caulk machine, and you kind of put it right up to the shark skin and hold it for about a minute. And right after that impression is done, you pull it off and you can see this incredible symmetrical mosaic of teeth and notches and grooves and nooks and crannies that I was describing earlier.


And then they can bring that composite back to the lab and model different types of materials after that. So it's a pretty thrilling things. Also, applications with the Navy and ships that are trying to reduce fouling or the attachment of algae and barnacles on ship hulls, that's, I think, one of the customers that the company is actually working with.


LUKE TIPPLE: Yeah, that'd make a lot of sense. If you can make a ship hull that's less susceptible to all of that accumulation, I mean, imagine the fuel savings, globally, just in that alone. I mean, that has a huge ecological impact. You're obviously working with reef sharks, is that out of convenience or is there something specific about their skin that lends to the research?


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: Sure. Well, we did reef sharks in our shark impressions on the show and the company had never done a reef shark impression, so that was something that we were able to provide pretty easily. Obviously, convenience as well, because there's very strong population of reef sharks in the waters off Turks.


So reef sharks were an easy target for us and we were able to get two or three really great samples from them.


LUKE TIPPLE: So would it be as simple for somebody at home thinking about, all right, what would be the best skin for which purpose? If they were to look at, say, a nurse shark, which spends a lot of time being fairly benthic, somewhat sedentary, kind of hanging out versus a Mako, which is just constantly going.


What type of differences in the denticles would they see?


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: Sure. Nurse sharks have denticles that are a lot more kind of rounder and kind of a less sharp structure than something like a Mako, which is designed for speed. And those are going to be much smaller and kind of more tooth-like, shark tooth-like.


So like I said earlier, the ecology of these animals is embedded in, virtually, all aspects of the animal's bodies, even down to its skin. So yeah, there's a different tool for every job. And nurse sharks don't need to move around very fast, like you said, they spend a lot of time in the bottom just kind of chilling and doing their thing. So that's how they evolved and it's fascinating to be able to see the differences between these animals.


And again, something like a nurse shark, which-- they don't get a lot of love, but I think they're a really fascinating species of shark, for sure.


LUKE TIPPLE: Yeah, they are. I'd like to see once that sort of technology develops and everything else, it would be cool to see coatings for airplanes and cars and things like that, just to reduce drag, make us go faster, come out of all these different types of sharks. Anything that we can do to make sharks more valuable to people I think would be really cool.


One of the comments you made I found really interesting because it doesn't get talked about a lot, and I actually had to look up some of it myself. I was like, huh, what is the latest research on this? But you made a comment that the sharks don't really have the capacity to feel pain or perhaps the neural networks to feel pain.


Run us through that because I don't think people really understand it.


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: This is an area of great scientific debate--




AUSTIN GALLAGHER: And there's two sides of the coin. And obviously, sharks are fish. And the debate is, can fish feel pain?




AUSTIN GALLAGHER: And you have one camp that says "no," you have one camp that says "yes." And obviously, there's a lot of ethics that are surrounding this debate, but when it comes down to pure physiology and neurophysiology, what's inside the animal, sharks just don't have the receptors to feel pain.


There are these receptors in the brain called nociceptors and they are the ones that code for feelings of pain in the neural network. And fish don't have it and sharks don't have it. So I'm of the thought that sharks can't feel pain. Obviously, sharks are vertebrates because they have a backbone. There are other species of vertebrates that can feel a pain.


Birds, perhaps some species of reptiles can, certainly mammals can. But I have seen how sharks respond to all sorts of different situations, underwater, free swimming, being tagged, et cetera. And they're pretty tough animals. I don't think that they would be able to survive the way they do if they felt pain because they wouldn't take the risks that they need to take in order to be a successful top predator.


And I've tagged lots of different mammal species too. And I've done that with deer and the response from a deer when you put-- you take a little clip of their skin is wildly different than when you take a clip from a shark. Obviously, there are some other differences there too.


But sharks do have reflexes, they do have nerves. So they can-- if you put a needle in to take a blood sample sometimes the shark will flick its tail, but I don't think that's pain. So yeah, an interesting tidbit, for sure, to share with people. And the research is, obviously, still ongoing, but I think the vast majority of shark researchers believe the same thing I do.


LUKE TIPPLE: Yeah. All right. I think I'd like to dive just a little more into that kind of distinction because it's very clear from everything that we do, from tagging to whatever else, that sharks can feel an impact. So you put a tag into them, a spear into them, they'll flinch away from it. You'll see the muscles fire, they'll be able to do that.


That makes sense that an animal wouldn't just be able to swim around numb to everything in its environment. That doesn't make any sense on a survival level. But biologically, what would be the difference between that sensation and a pain sensation? Is it the longevity of it? The actual emotion attached to it? The response to it? How do we define that?


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: It's really all about response because it relates to the endocrine system, which is hormone regulation. And hormones dictate pretty much everything that every living organism on this planet does, whether it's mating or being hungry or being aggressive or et cetera, or being lazy. And sharks have hormones.


But pain can sort of-- pain is designed to promote survival because if something hurts your body tells you, oh my gosh, this is really bad, you need to get away from it and because you might die. And sharks don't really seem to have that because they're at the top of the food chain.


And it really comes down to that fight or flight response. So, I mean, I've seen sharks that have had entire piece of their body missing and they've recovered. Entire gill rakers ripped off of white sharks or Guadeloupe from mating events and--




AUSTIN GALLAGHER: If that hurt, I guess that's the right word, then would they still be able to feed? Would they still be able to do what they're doing? I don't know. I don't think they would, to be honest with you.


So they're so elemental of a group of animals. They really can be broken down to the building blocks of life more than any other group of animal on the planet. So not to give them any-- not to discredit them, but I just really don't think they have the capacity to feel pain.


LUKE TIPPLE: I'll never forget being underwater, this is probably 13, 14 years ago, and I saw a tiger shark, fairly large tiger shark, attack an anchor line. And I don't know why it did it, but it managed to get itself pretty well wrapped in it. And its jaw was just snagged on this line and it just kept pulling and pulling and pulling.


I actually tried to go up and release it from it, but there was five of them in the water and they just wouldn't let me anywhere near it. Obviously the activity's going crazy and it was pretty dynamic situation. But I couldn't quite get up there to release it and the shark broke its jaw.


It literally just went-- I could hear it. It was like-- [CRACKING SOUND] underwater. And it snapped off, about a third of its jaw right here. And I just watched it in front of me like, oh my god. What just happened? Did that thing just kill itself? And that released it, it got away.


And about half an hour later it swam back around and started biting on a bait box. I'm like, dude. Look at your jaw, shouldn't you be going to see a nurse or something like what? And it didn't seem to faze it. It shocked me.


And I was talking about it-- I was having the same conversation like, could-- at the time I was kind of in the camp that maybe they could feel pain. I wasn't really sure. I was just like, I don't know that we could have a more clear definition of that happening in front of us and it not showing an aversion to coming back and feeding when it clearly didn't probably need to.


I guess that, for me, kind of summed it up a little bit.


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: Totally. I mean, I've also seen similar situations where if a shark really wants to eat something, it's not going to stop until the animal gets away. Sometimes it does, but they don't stop.


And they do have the capacity to learn, sharks do, by the way. But if they learn that these things hurt them, they probably wouldn't go after things like stingrays and other sharks. Whereas, you look at land predators like wolves, which are dogs, and big cats and things like that, they won't go after animals with horns if it's not the right situation because they know that they can die from that.


LUKE TIPPLE: Yeah. I guess we just look straight at their mating activity, their brains might be slightly thinking a little bit differently at the time, but you got to imagine that if females were able to feel that much capacity of pain, the whole mating event would be just too traumatic for them to really be involved in it whatsoever, right?


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: Exactly. You just nailed it. Yep.


LUKE TIPPLE: So getting back to the fun that you guys had out there, there were a couple of dives that got a little bit sketchy, I think [LAUGHS] during the trip. I mean, most of it looked pretty chill, but there were a couple of moments that looked a little bit less than ideal.


So there's a dive it looked liked the tide was changing a little bit or something was happening and it went from what we've all experienced, where there's great conditions and then suddenly everything changed. Take me through that and what you are thinking, and having a guest down there with you?


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: There's this one area with this amazing channel where we know there are some of the biggest sharks in Turks and Caicos. And it's obviously very exposed to the incoming and outgoing tide because it's a channel. And it's the kind of sandy carbonate bank that's very thin, silty sand, so when the tide goes out, not so much in, but when the tide goes out, pulls all of that surface layer of sand and silt. Kind of brings it up and pulls it offshore. And then when it gets suspended in the top of the water, in the mid water column, can be really hard to see, the visibility drops.


So on this dive, we were trying to go down and get really close to some sharks and see if we could see some bigger individuals. And there were five, six, seven sharks on the surface before we got in. There were dolphins swimming around the boat, there was a lot of life there. We saw manta ray. So it seemed like there was a lot of nutrients and energy getting pushed through this channel.


So we hopped in and the visibility wasn't great when we first jumped in. Probably about 40, 50 feet, we get down to the bottom and right when we were descending down to about 50 feet down, you could just see that we were going into almost like a hydrogen sulfide layer of dust cloud and dust.


And we got down there and we had some bait in the water. So we didn't know where the sharks were. That's the worst thing for, I think, for me when I go into the water with sharks. I want to see them at all times, I want to know where they are. Because if I can know where my surroundings are then I can act accordingly and try to have a little bit of a step up on the animals, if that makes any sense.


When you can't see them, it makes it really kind of sketchy and scary. And I think I probably have a higher threshold for sketchy situations than other people. However, sometimes ignorance is bliss. I don't know if Sandra knew how rough that situation was--




AUSTIN GALLAGHER: After five minutes, we're down there, Mark Rackley, one of our cameramen, and he's shaking this crate and I can barely see him in the back. And I know that there were big predators down there. And like I said, all of a sudden one comes out of the reef from below us and right through the two of us, which was horrible.


And I said, let's get out of here. I can't see anything. Just talking to her on the face mask. Let's get out of here and abort it. Like, no, try to stay for a couple more minutes, see if the silt will clear out.


It didn't. It got worse. And we just said, OK, it's time to abort the dive. She actually was very chill, she did a great job. Obviously, we were kind of holding hands there, locked shoulders. But that's the situation you don't want to be in because when the odds are stacked in the favor of the sharks, then you really are-- you just don't know what they're going to do.


And they want to have the advantage on you. But those sharks weren't trying to eat us, but they were definitely asserting themselves and we were in between them and the bait. And you don't want to get in between animals and bait.


LUKE TIPPLE: Yeah, especially when Mark Rackley's handling the bait crate. [LAUGHS]


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: He's an animal loving guy.


LUKE TIPPLE: Guy loves it.


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: Oh my gosh, he's so awesome. And he's just an incredible storyteller and he knows animals so well. And he's still a human, but when you're in the water with that guy, you have this kind of sense of security. Which, is it real? Is it not real? But it definitely helps alleviate some of those situations.


LUKE TIPPLE: Yeah, well, perhaps that's an ignorance or more knowledge is bliss. But whatever that guy does, it's amazing. I loved bringing him out before. So good to see him on your team.


So you're back home now, what's next for you? What's your next research, next trip? What's exciting in your world?


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: Tomorrow I'm actually heading to Italy to go search for white sharks in the Mediterranean.




AUSTIN GALLAGHER: This is the first time that this has ever been attempted from a scientific standpoint. So I'm joining a team of Italian researchers and American researchers that are already over there right now. And they've been studying white sharks in the Mediterranean from historical records and modeling where they're found off of the coast of Italy.




AUSTIN GALLAGHER: And there's this one channel right there where it seems to be really big kind of bottleneck for a lot of these big white sharks. In fact, some of the biggest white sharks ever, around 7 meters, that's like over 20 feet, have been found in the Mediterranean.


And it's a very overfished body of water. So I'm going over there to sort of help the team documents and discover and find where these animals may be. It's a project that is in part supported by Discovery Channel and the Explorers Club. So I'm thrilled to, for the first time, extend my own personal research into a new body of water, and hopefully make history and find some amazing white sharks.


LUKE TIPPLE: That sounds amazing. What's the ultimate goal there? Is it to tag them? Figure out where they're going? Are you trying to establish a new population?


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: Yeah, kind of both. It's really just, put the species on the map, biologically. Obviously, we want to-- we know they're there, we're not the first to know that they're there. Aristotle knew that they were there, but nobody's ever tracked their movements. Nobody has ever looked at their genetics.


There's been very little work in terms of the spatial needs that these animals have. They are protected in the Mediterranean, but they are often caught by tuna fishermen and these big nets off of Northern Africa. And it's a really slow growing animal, so it's really important for us to better protect and manage the species to actually get some data.


So the ultimate goal is certainly to kind of understand where they spend their time, but to just start establishing some information on the population would be a really great step, whether we get them on a BRUV, which is an underwater camera, or we could detect them with water samples and eDNA, environmental DNA, samples, drone surveys.


And this is, obviously, the beginning of hopefully a long term research project. And it would be really exciting to actually gather some information on this population because we know why sharks are found in the Mediterranean, but that's about all we know.


LUKE TIPPLE: Yeah. Well, good luck with that, mate. I know you're headed out tomorrow, right? So thanks so much for your time with us today. It's really appreciated


AUSTIN GALLAGHER: My pleasure, Luke. Always love jumping on this show and I'm really excited to see all the great shows on Shark Week this year and see all the new discoveries that people are making.


LUKE TIPPLE: Awesome, mate. Well, good luck in the Med. And everyone at home, that's your Daily Bite. Thanks so much for joining us. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. I'll see you on the next Daily Bite. Happy Shark Week.