There’s a frenzy on Long Island this summer as shark attacks and sightings have grabbed headlines from the Rockaways to the south fork.
For Greg Metzger, it’s a perfect time to be in the water.
The Southampton TA member and high school marine science teacher has spent summers off the coast since 2015 in pursuit of baby white sharks. It’s work in the spotlight this year. The goal is to learn more about these iconic, yet elusive fish by catching, analyzing and tagging them before releasing them back into the Atlantic.
“The sharks have always been here,” Metzger said, explaining that the increased abundance of sharks in recent years are the fruits of decades-long conservation efforts to clean up Long Island’s coast. Environmentalism has brought back schools of fish “and the predators follow the food.”
Sharks weren’t always Metzger’s forte. In fact, he didn’t visit an ocean until high school, when his parents sent him from his Western New York home to Long Island University’s Southampton campus for a summer program to nurture a childhood interest in marine science. He came back for college and found another love: teaching.
Though he wanted to teach at the college level, he fell 10 points short on his GRE of being able to pursue the Ph.D. track he wanted, researching bluefin tunas. A friend in a similar predicament told Metzger he was going to pursue certification to teach at the K-12 level instead. Metzger followed and in 2001 got a full-time job teaching biology and oceanography at Southampton High School.
The gig allowed him to save up to buy his first boat, and summer vacation was the perfect time to hit the waters to fish. As he ventured further out from shore, he began catching sharks.
“Having a background in marine science and knowing there’s basically nothing known about sharks, this was data swimming away,” he said.
Another college buddy, who worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, told Metzger there was evidence that the south shore is a nursery for white sharks, yet little was known about the creatures’ early life stages. “We could really do some kick-ass science,” Metzger recalled thinking.
And he’s been doing it ever since.
Under the name Reel Science Charters and working with a handful of research partners, Metzger takes a team out each summer to catch the sharks and compile a multitude of information for use by scientists. They tag each shark to track their movements in an effort to better understand their habitats, they take a muscle biopsy, draw a blood sample, take a fin clip, do basic body measurements and take cloacal swabs to test DNA in the shark’s fecal matter to learn more about their diets.
To be sure, the research efforts are critical to understanding these apex predators. But Metzger’s summer work goes beyond research. It’s an extension of his classroom.
Not only has he taken students out on the boat for the research expeditions, back at Southampton High School, the students in his marine research program can access the suite of shark data he helps collect. What’s more, he’s got four live sharks at the school’s marine lab — a lab he designed to fit into a district capital project and helped build out with the assistance of students. That’s on top of the saltwater aquarium fish they raise as part of his elective courses to be sold to local pet shops or homed with the students themselves (they have to earn their fish through work maintaining the lab).
Southampton TA President Sean Brand beams about what his colleague has created.
“The extent of what he’s doing in the classroom, let alone what he’s doing in terms of shark research, there’s no comparison,” Brand said.
It’s work that almost didn’t happen, had Metzger passed the GRE and conducted the bluefin tuna research he wanted. But what drew him to the bluefins — using high-tech means to research highly charismatic creatures — is exactly what he’s doing now with the sharks. And like the sharks, it turns out the high school teaching job is a good fit, too.
“I enjoy inspiring students to go on to a career, not necessarily in marine science, but to be good human beings, to be good citizens,” Metzger said.
Of falling short on his GRE requirements, he quips, “Those are the best 10 points I never earned.”