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Tracking Sharks and Rays in Florida

Expedition Briefing


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Please read the following information before leaving for your expedition.

It provides the most accurate information available and will likely answer any questions you have about the project. You may also reach out to your Program Coordinator with any questions you may have.


COVID-19 Enhanced Health and Safety Measures

This project has been amended to incorporate several health and safety measures to allow responsible fielding of teams during the COVID-19 pandemic. Please refer to the COVID Disclosure Form for more details. 

Before Fielding 
  • Vaccination against COVID-19 is required for all participants. Staying up to date with your vaccinations, including receiving booster doses if available, is strongly encouraged. 
  • Become familiar with and abide by the local COVID requirements up to date vaccinations, including boosters, mandatory quarantine, or other guidelines. 
  • Do not travel to your Earthwatch expedition or program if you: 
    • are experiencing symptoms consistent with COVID-19 (cough, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, fever, chills, muscle pain, sore throat, or new loss of taste or smell), 
    • are confirmed or suspected as having COVID-19 within the past 10 days  
    • have been in close contact with someone suspected or confirmed as having COVID-19 in the past 10 days 
  • You are highly encouraged to take a COVID-19 test one day before or the morning of your rendezvous, before meeting up with your team.  
While in the Field 
  • Face masks will be required in line with local regulations and/or when instructed by project leadership. In areas or on projects where mask use is no longer required, the use of face masks will be optional. Any individual who wishes to continue to mask will be supported in that decision. 
  • Participants and project staff will continue to wash or sanitize hands frequently and maintain physical distance whenever possible. 
  • All team members will be asked to monitor their own health through daily health checks. 
  • Recreational activities may be limited or require additional face mask requirements to reduce the risk of exposure to team members or to the local community.  
  • Meals and activities will take place outside whenever possible. 
  • Ventilation will be increased indoors and within enclosed vehicles whenever possible.

The Research

In the 1950s, Dr. Eugenie Clark (often referred to as the "Shark Lady") founded a small research lab in Sarasota, Florida. Among other studies, she and her team researched locally abundant sharks and rays (Clark and von Schmidt 1965). That laboratory eventually grew into Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, which today still houses one of the oldest and largest shark and ray research programs in the world.  

Since Dr. Clark's era, sharks have experienced massive population changes off Sarasota and in the U.S. Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico more broadly (Peterson et al. 2017). A boom in shark fishing, which occurred in the 1970s and 1980s, led to severe population declines (Peterson et al. 2017). Mote scientists established local shark surveys and research programs aimed at guiding state and federal shark management policy. These surveys continue to the present day and combined with other research, have revealed that sharks are beginning to recover in U.S. waters under a science-based management regime (Peterson et al. 2017). 

With the Shark Finning Prohibition Act in 2000 and the Shark Conservation Act in 2010, the U.S. has built some of the strongest regulations on shark fishing in the world. Today, the number of sharks that can be caught is highly regulated to ensure the fishery is sustainable. These state and federal catch limits continue to be based in part on Mote’s longstanding shark survey.  

Aboard a research vessel named for the groundbreaking Shark Lady, Earthwatch volunteers will help continue Dr. Clark’s work to survey shark populations off the coast of southwest Florida. The data you help collect will aid researchers in determining whether shark management is effectively regulating shark fisheries and direct regulators to alternative management strategies for shark species that are not recovering adequately.  

This project will also launch a new initiative to survey inshore stingray populations. Currently, ray populations are not assessed by the state or local government; however, an emerging threat known as red tide is impacting the biodiversity and ecological function of these species. Red tide occurs when the algae species Karenia brevis rapidly increases, called an algal bloom. Usually, algae are invisible to the naked eye, but during these population booms, there are so many Karenia brevis that they may turn the water red. These red tides can cause massive fish die-offs and the deaths of marine mammals, sea turtles, and sea birds.

Unlike many other marine animals, inshore rays cannot leave the bays, where red tides are most likely to occur, so they are more likely to be exposed and die. While red tides occur naturally, human activities are causing them to happen more frequently. Chemicals from farming, sewage treatment plants, and other sources can become dissolved in the water and cause algae to grow faster, leading to a harmful algae bloom. The abundance and biodiversity of inshore stingrays need to be established to determine how increasingly frequent red tides are impacting ray populations and its effects on the Sarasota Bay’s ecosystems.

Research Aims

This project addresses two major research objectives. The first is to maintain Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium’s shark survey off the Sarasota coast. The second objective is to establish a new inshore stingray survey.  

These objectives will address the following research questions: 

  1. What are the species-specific population trends for sharks off the Sarasota coast, and are all managed species now recovering? 
  2. Are sharks larger today than they were 20 years ago due to lower fishing pressure? 
  3. Are stingrays declining in Sarasota Bay as a result of red tide? 

The data collected through this program will feed directly into federal shark assessments, which are used to set shark catch limits and promulgate additional management measures when needed. These data are also used by the research staff to conduct their own analyses to determine the status of sharks in southwest Florida and compare the species composition to what Dr. Eugenie Clark observed in the 1950s.

How You Will Help

You will assist researchers in the following activities:  

Catching sharks by longline and drumline. 

You will follow the standardized gear and sampling locations that have been used by Mote every year for nearly two decades. Ten drumlines and a longline will be deployed each day in two locations per expedition. Locations include Anna Maria Island, Longboat Pass, New Pass, and Midnight Pass. Drumlines will be set twice each day at two different depths and the longline will be set once per day. The hooks will be baited with fish bait. Volunteers will then assist researchers in checking these lines. All sharks captured will be identified, sexed, measured, and fin-clipped for population genetics studies. All sharks will be tagged with Mote tags and released alive, when alive at capture. All non-shark catch will be measured and returned to the water.  

Establish an inshore ray survey program. 

Stingrays will be surveyed in Sarasota Bay twice per expedition. As this is a new initiative, volunteers will help establish the sampling methods. Volunteers will potentially test a variety of approaches, including baited underwater remote video systems (BRUVS), longlines, gill nets, and seine nets to survey stingray species, including spotted eagle rays and butterfly rays. Captured rays will be brought on board and placed in a live well so the team can sample, measure, tag, and release them. The objective is to determine the optimal sampling method. This optimal method will then be used to assess the effects of seasonal red tide on the bay’s populations of stingrays. 

Collect environmental data at each survey location. 

At each deployed line, volunteers will assist in collecting a variety of physical data. This includes the depth range, tide, salinity, conductivity, dissolved oxygen, temperature, bottom type, and weather conditions. 

Prepare bait and maintain equipment. 

Volunteers will aid research staff in preparing bait for the sharks and rays, loading the equipment on the research vessel, deploying, and retrieving gear, cleaning gear after fieldwork, and unloading the vessel at the end of the trip. 

Life in the Field

Weather and research needs can lead to changes in the daily schedule. We appreciate your cooperation and understanding.

Activities will include gear preparation, gear maintenance, bait preparation and organization, BRUV deployment/retrieval, shark fishing, bait acquisition, receiver recovery or deployment, stingray fishing, accelerometer retrieval, and snorkeling (the latter is recreational/ educational in nature and not required). A typical day would involve away activities in the morning between breakfast and lunch, with another away activity in the afternoon and potentially at night. 


Day 1: Arrival

  • Meet at the rendezvous point at 3:00 p.m.
  • Introduction to project and team. 
  • Settle into accommodations (“home-base”).

Day 2: Training & Ray Day 1

  • Volunteers will be divided into two groups.
  • One group will spend the morning being trained in shark sampling and data collection methods and loading the research vessel at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium (the Eugenie Clark).
  • The other group will be on the water in our small research vessel (Ono or Parker) surveying rays in Sarasota Bay.
  • Groups will swap activities in the afternoon.
  • Evening BBQ with Mote staff at the home-base.

Days 3–4: Shark Survey Days

  • The whole team will spend the day conducting shark surveys. This activity entails up to 9 hours per day on the larger research vessel.
  • Early start (6:00 a.m.) and take-out dinner at the home base.

Day 5: Rest and Recovery, Data Entry

  • Enter data in the morning.
  • Unpack and clean shark survey gear.
  • Free tickets and a behind the scenes tour of Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in the morning.
  • Volunteers will be allowed to explore Sarasota in the afternoon (optional).
  • Evening BBQ with Mote staff at the home-base.

Day 6: Ray Day 2.

  • Volunteers will be divided into two groups.
  • One group will spend the morning packing and preparing the house ready for the next day's departure.
  • The other group will be on the water in our small research vessel (Ono or Parker) surveying rays in Sarasota Bay.
  • Groups will swap activities in the afternoon.
  • Evening dinner with Mote staff in Sarasota.

Day 7: Departure

  • All volunteers depart home base by 9:00 a.m.

Accommodations and Food

* Please note that not every expedition has couples’ or single's accommodations available. Please call or email Earthwatch to check for availability prior to reserving your space(s) on the team.


A large rental house will be used as a home base for the expedition. It will have a mix of single and double or triple occupancy rooms. Room assignments will be made based on the gender mix of the team.

* Earthwatch will honor each person’s assertion of gender identity, respectfully and without judgment. For both teen and adult teams, where logistics dictate single-sex accommodations or other facilities, participant placements will be made in accordance with the gender identity the participant specified on their Earthwatch Participant form and/or preferences indicated in discussions with Earthwatch.


The rental house will have a minimum of 2 full bathrooms.


The rental house will have standard US voltage and power outlets in all sleeping and common areas.


Volunteers will have full access to cell phones and internet, although cell phone use on the vessels will be discouraged for safety reasons.

Please note: Personal communication with outsiders is not always possible while participating in an expedition. Earthwatch encourages volunteers to minimize outgoing calls and immerse themselves in the experience; likewise, family and friends should restrict calls to urgent messages only.


The boat launch will be a 20-minute drive from the rental house. From there, you will take a 15 to 60-minute ride in the research vessel to the location where sampling gear will be deployed.


The rental house will be stocked with standard American foodstuffs prior to your arrival to enable you to prepare your own breakfast and lunches, the latter of which will often be consumed at Mote or on the research vessel. This will include cereal, bread, fruit, condiments, eggs, breakfast and lunch meats, snacks, coffee, tea, milk, and juice. Additional snacks will be carried by Mote staff in the field. Dinners will largely be take out or self-catered and will be determined in conjunction with the rest of the team and Mote staff to accommodate the timing of field activities and dietary needs and preferences.


Please alert Earthwatch to any special dietary requirements (e.g., diabetes, lactose intolerance, nut, or other food allergies, vegetarian or vegan diets) as soon as possible, and note them in the space provided on your participant forms. 

This project can cater to all dietary requirements and preferences.

Project Conditions


For weather and region-specific information, please visit Wunderground.com and search for your project location.

Essential Eligibility Requirements

All participants must be able to:

  • Wear all protective equipment recommended or required by industry standards.
  • Work on a boat for approximately four to five hours per day with limited break options (e.g., there is no bathroom on the boat, except for the ocean or the islands where we will stop).
  • Maintain a seated, upright position within the boat during transit, which can sometimes be bumpy. This can be uncomfortable for individuals with back problems.
  • Enjoy being outdoors all day in all types of weather and in the potential presence of wild animals and insects.
  • Endure tropic (hot and humid) work conditions.
  • Be comfortable with living in and moving between remote study sites. 
  • Follow verbal and/or visual instructions independently or with the assistance of a companion.
  • Take an active role in your own safety by recognizing and avoiding hazards if and when they arise (including, but not limited to, those described in Earthwatch materials and safety briefings). Always comply with project staff instructions and recommended safety measures.
  • Effectively communicate to the staff if you are experiencing distress or need assistance.
  • Get along with a variety of people from different backgrounds and ages, often in close proximity, for the duration of your team.
  • Be comfortable being surrounded by a language and/or culture that is different from your own.

Health and Safety


Project staff members are not medical professionals.

Earthwatch has a 24-hour, 7-day-a-week emergency hotline number. Someone is always on call to respond to messages that come into our live answering service.


Please be sure your routine immunizations are up to date (for example: diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella and varicella) and you have the appropriate vaccinations for your travel destination. Medical decisions are the responsibility of each volunteer and his or her doctor. Visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention or the World Health Organization for guidance on immunizations.

If traveling from countries or regions where yellow fever is endemic, you must have a certificate of vaccination.

Vaccination against COVID-19 is required for all participants. Staying up to date with your vaccinations, including receiving booster doses as applicable is strongly encouraged.

Project Risks and Precautions


We will travel on public roads with few traffic issues, but the risks inherent in road travel still apply. All volunteers will have a seat belt and must wear it whenever the vehicle is in motion. Volunteers are not permitted to drive.


Working with sharks and stingrays alongside or in a boat is inherently dangerous. All sharks and stingrays we work with are hooked in the mouth and are secured prior to the workup. Teams will be heavily supervised during this activity and will not touch sharks forward of their dorsal fins. Stingray spines will be removed by staff both for safety and for use as a scientific sample. The staff members have years of experience working with sharks and stingrays without incident.

Potentially dangerous animals that could be encountered while snorkeling include sharks, stingrays, sea urchins, lionfish, and jellyfish. Although rare, saltwater crocodiles have been seen. Staff will train you to identify dangerous species and to avoid touching any organisms. Those with a severe allergy to bee or wasp stings may have a similarly dangerous reaction to corals and jellyfish and must always carry an EpiPen and notify staff of its location.


Sand flies (also known as “sand fleas” or “no-see-ums”) and mosquitoes are nuisances throughout the year. Sand flies are believed to be a vector for leishmaniasis in some regions. Some find them to be only irritating, but occasionally people have very bad reactions to the bites. Please come prepared with an oral antihistamine that you know you can tolerate, as well as a topical anti-itch cream. Those traveling from outside of the Americas may have a more severe reaction to bites. To avoid sand flies, wear lightweight long pants and socks in the evening (they generally bite from the knees down). Mosquitoes may transmit several diseases, including malaria and zika virus (see the Safety section for more information). Repellents containing DEET work well against mosquitoes. To avoid them, also wear lightweight long pants, shirts, and socks in the evening.


The Caribbean sun is very intense. Please bring plenty of good-quality waterproof sunscreen at several SPF levels. You will also want to bring after-sun lotion to soothe your skin after a long day in the sun. Some volunteers have found it helpful to bring long-sleeved, lightweight, quick-drying shirts and long pants to wear when not in the water (including on the boat between snorkels). A hat with a wide brim and a neck gaiter or loose scarf are recommended, as are polarized sunglasses and a chord to secure them around your neck. With the sun comes heat and risks of overheating and dehydration. Both can lead to illness. Drinking water frequently and minimizing exposure to the sun will help make your experience more enjoyable. Brief periods of intense rain are not uncommon during the field season, so a sturdy rain jacket is mandatory. More extreme tropical storms and hurricanes traditionally occur from June through November with late August, September, and October as the most active periods. A hurricane plan exists and will be followed in the case of an extreme weather event. Because of the high humidity, people who use a hearing aid may find it doesn’t work properly. Consider purchasing a hearing aid dehumidifier.


We will be working with some sharp items (hooks) and bait (spines). Volunteers will be issued gloves and will be trained in the safe handling of these items


Working aboard a small boat poses risks. Bouncing or jostling can be quite uncomfortable for volunteers with chronic back problems or a history of seasickness. Boat surfaces are wet and can be slippery, putting one at risk of falling and injury. You must be able to keep your balance on a rocking boat. Unplanned immersion in the water from falling overboard can also put one at risk of injury and/or cold-related illnesses. The boats are equipped with appropriate safety equipment including life jackets for each person. Volunteers will be trained on how to move around the boat safely. Sensible footwear (shoes, sandals), but not flip-flops, will be mandatory on the boat at all times


Florida is a generally safe region for travelers; however, do not leave valuables unattended in public areas. 


Be aware that swimming may be possible during recreational time and typical water-related risks will be present, such as strong currents, jellyfish, etc. A certified lifeguard is unlikely to be available. A provided dive flag is required to be displayed from the dock or floated behind you.

There are inherent risks to snorkeling, including the effects of environmental conditions, nitrogen (for those who’ve recently been scuba diving), barotrauma, boat traffic, marine life, and other risks specific to your own physical/medical history. When snorkeling, it is important to learn to properly control your breathing to reduce the risk of hyperventilation and blackout. You need to bring and maintain your own mask, snorkel, fins, booties, and exposure protection (e.g., rash guard). Snorkel vests can be provided for those who either prefer them or are required to use them. It is critical that you ensure that all gear is in good working order, and you are fully trained in appropriate response if a failure occurs while in the water. All snorkeling will be optional and conducted in groups with rigorous practice of the buddy system. Each buddy pair will trail a dive float and our small research vessel with at least one Field Staff besides the captain will follow the group during the activity. If volunteers choose to snorkel during their free time on the island, they must do so in designated areas approved by staff and understand there is no lifeguard on duty. They should also practice the buddy system and take a dive float out with them. Typical in-water hazards include fire coral, sea urchins, jellyfish, occasional boat traffic, strong currents, dangerous bottom conditions (drop-off, mud), and biting or territorial animals.

You are required to bring your own snorkeling gear (mask, snorkel, and fins), should you choose to participate. Please check your gear for functionality prior to your arrival as there are no dive shops at the field stations. Avoid bringing short swim fins; proper snorkeling fins are essential.


The project site is about 15 minutes away from Sarasota Memorial Hospital, a full-service health care system. 


COVID-19 is an infectious disease. Although most people who have COVID-19 will experience mild to moderate respiratory illness, it can also cause severe illness and even death. Some people are at increased risk of severe illness. The COVID-19 virus spreads from person to person via close contact, primarily through exposure to the respiratory droplets of an infected person. Medication availability and treatment for COVID-19 varies from country to country and specific treatment options may not be possible in your destination.  

Projects and participants fielding with Earthwatch commit to a number of enhanced safety measures as described in the COVID Disclosure Form.  Enhanced safety measures may include physical distancing, wearing face masks, regular hand washing and surface sanitizing, heeding advice from project leadership or local authorities, adjusted logistics, and monitoring one’s own health throughout the expedition. If you get symptoms of COVID 19 or test positive while traveling you may be subject to quarantine and other local regulations that may disrupt your travel plans. Please plan for extended travel days.

Travel Planning


Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, 6000 Airport Circle, Sarasota.

* Additional information will be provided by Earthwatch to meet your team. Please do not book travel arrangements such as flights until you have received additional information from Earthwatch.


Earthwatch strongly recommends that travelers investigate their destination prior to departure. Familiarity with the destination’s entry/exit requirements, visas, local laws, and customs can go a long way to ensuring smooth travel. The U.S. Department of State's Traveler’s Checklist and Destination Guides are helpful resources. For LGBTI travelers, the U.S. Department of State's LGBTI Travelers page contains many useful tips and links.


You are responsible for reviewing and abiding by the local COVID guidelines and regulations for your destination. This may include proof of testing upon arrival or departure, up to date vaccinations against COVID-19, including boosters, mandatory quarantine, or other requirements.  

For information regarding Florida, please visit https://floridahealthcovid19.gov/ and https://www.cdc.gov.

Entry visa requirements differ by country of origin, layover, and destination, and do change unexpectedly. For this reason, please confirm your visa requirements at the time of booking and, again, 90 days prior to travel. Please apply early for your visa (we recommend starting 6 months prior to the start of your expedition). Refunds will not be made for volunteers canceling due to not obtaining their visa in time to meet the team at the rendezvous. You can find up to date visa requirements at the following website: www.travisa.com.

If a visa is required, participants should apply for a TOURIST visa. Please note that obtaining a visa can take weeks or even months. We strongly recommend using a visa agency, which can both expedite and simplify the process.

Generally, passports must be valid for at least six months from the date of entry and a return ticket is required.


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