Meet the Expert: Dr. Stephen Kajiura

kajiura

Jaws’ Best Friend: FAU shark researcher Stephen Kajiura hopes to reduce locals’ fear factors

Dr. Stephen Kajiura doesn’t think you should be afraid of sharks. Of course, that’s to be expected from one of the preeminent shark researchers in the world.

Kajiura has come a long way since his days watching Jacques Cousteau specials in landlocked Southern Ontario as a child. After stints in Hawaii and California, he’s now a professor and resident shark expert at Florida Atlantic University.

“I’m just living the dream,” he says of his role at FAU. “This is what I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid, and I actually got to do it, which is incredible.”

About 10 years ago, Kajiura started getting calls from local news agencies inquiring about large groups of sharks amassing close to the shore. He quickly realized there was no previous research into the masses of blacktip sharks that migrated to the waters just off of Palm Beach County each winter, and wasted no time in getting to work. For the last decade, he and his students have been researching the annual migration by tagging sharks with trackers and performing aerial surveys.

Kajiura, who had just earned his pilot’s license when he learned of the blacktip migration, serves as the pilot for his team’s aerial surveys. To his knowledge, he’s one of only two airborne shark biologists in the world—the other being a colleague in thePacific Northwest. “They’re here literally by the tens of thousands,” he says of the blacktips.

Kajiura knows that locals may not be thrilled to learn that so many sharks are visiting us annually, but he insists there’s no reason to be concerned. “As residents down here, we should be delighted when we see the sharks, because it’s really indicative that we have a healthy ecosystem. It should be viewed as something we’re proud of.”

If that’s not enough to dissuade the concerns of selachophobes (those afraid of sharks), Kajiura has good news: Not only do these sharks not want to attack you, they don’t even want to get near you.

“It’s often really difficult to get up close to them, because they’re so skittish,” he says of potential human interaction with the blacktips. “Down here, I can’t say we get no bites, but we get relatively few bites, because when the people are in the water, the sharks see that we aren’t baitfish and they skedaddle.”

The prevailing theory among Kajiura and his team is that the sharks migrate to wherever their ideal water temperature is, and the waters off of Palm Beach County happen to be just right between January and March. This is because they are heated by the Gulf Stream, which “comes closer to land here in Boca Raton than it does anywhere else on the planet.”

Soon enough, our waters may actually be too warm for the sharks. Kajiura is concerned that rising sea temperatures could shift the entire migration of blacktips north, potentially reducing the number of sharks that trek down to South Florida all the way to zero. When the sharks return this month, the researchers will have a better idea of whether that trend is taking effect.

Though he cherishes the imposing creatures, Kajiura acknowledges that the general perception of sharks is that they are to be feared—and that sensationalist entertainment is largely to blame.

“It’s not just fiction, it’s also some of the so-called documentary programming that’s not as good as it should be,” he says of programming like Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. “A lot of what they show is isolating people and perpetuating that fear [of sharks].”

Kajiura believes that the key to diminishing fear of sharks lies in educating people about them. “Knowledge dispels fear. The more you know, the less afraid you become. You retain a respect, but you certainly are not fearful.”

This story is from the January 2020 issue of Boca magazine. For more content like this, subscribe to the magazine. For more on the blacktip shark migration, check out our Web Extra from this feature.