Rhode Island grad student documents shark activity near volcano

University of Rhode Island oceanography graduate student Brennan Phillips is presenting research on shark behavior around a submarine volcano near the Solomon Islands at the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco.

Phillips compiled an impressive set of data from the expedition, which is garnering interest from geologists, marine biologists and oceanographers. He collected lava and water samples, data to produce a sonar-based map, and intriguing glimpses of shark behavior near what the Ph.D student irreverently refers to as Shark-cano.

“What was most surprising was that fish and sharks swam right through the bubbling hot water in the volcano,” Phillips said. “And in the crater, our cameras caught images of schools of sharks, smaller fish and even jellyfish living in the hot acidic plume. This presumably toxic environment supports a whole community of life, even though every once in awhile, it blows up.”

Phillips has been commended for conducting groundbreaking research on a shoestring budget. A research vessel can cost more than $25,000 for a day of use, so Phillips created his own research equipment to conduct the studies. Coupled with other innovative cost-savers, Phillips was able to collect fascinating data at a cut rate.

“We stayed in modest bunkhouses, we worked from small boats, we negotiated discounts on some of our gear, and we even sold some of our gear on eBay after we were finished with it to break even on our expenses,” Phillips, a native of East Lyme, Connecticut, said.

Phillips came up with out-of-the-box solutions, including an electric fishing reel with donated line instead of an expensive winch to lower and raise cameras and oceanographic instruments to the volcano. He essentially ride-shared on a boat rented by an Australian research team, and shared a generator with them. For the rest, Phillips has the National Geographic Society to thank. The society gave his research a grant for travel costs and loaned him specialized camera equipment to document the shark-cano.

“When you put all of these things together, we were able to do comprehensive exploration of a distant site no one had ever really studied before by using these simple, cost-effective methods,” Phillips said. “It couldn’t have turned out better.”

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