Kids camp allows young scientists to wrangle sharks

Hunting, capturing and holding the ocean’s top predator with your bare hands isn’t your typical summer camp activity for kids.

Forget watching Shark Week on television.  Shark Fest, hosted by the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory in Ocean Springs, Miss., gives 12 to 14 year-old campers some real-life, close encounters with these prehistoric hunters.

“It’s pretty intense.  I mean the shark’s flopping around.  And it’s just that fear that it might bite you,” explained a grinning 12 year-old camper Joey Kauppi.

On board a GCRL research vessel, these young shark-seekers venture out into the Gulf of Mexico to get their hands on as many sharks as they can find, all in the name of science.

“They’re outside doing what it is scientist do, and yet we’re able to package it in a very cool looking package,” Shark Fest’s program director, Beth Jones told

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Working alongside researchers from GCRL, known to campers as “shark wranglers,” these kids help gather data on sharks found along coastal waters.  But to do that, they have to catch them first.

“There’s certainly a Hollywood aspect to what we do.  It’s a novel thing, kids have never seen or done most of the things I get to take them and show them,” Jones said.

After picking out the best bait and setting their fishing lines, campers wait for the sharks to start biting.

Usually thrashing around as they come on board, each shark’s gender, species, length, and weight is recorded before they are tagged with an identification tag which allows researchers to track changes in shark populations over time by comparing collected data samples.

After the tag is set, kids get their close-encounter with the shark by carefully picking it up in such a way that they don’t lose their hand, counting to three, and tossing it overboard back into the ocean.

“The other summer camps are definitely more boring than this one,” 13 year-old camper Tempest Tanner told

Safety is a top priority for the camp; so each participant is trained how to properly handle a shark before going out to sea.  And to make sure kids aren’t hauling in any Great Whites, the captain sticks to areas where the sharks don’t get too big, usually between two and four feet long.

“But it doesn’t really have to be a ginormous shark to be a very cool shark.  Sharks are just cool,” Jones said.

The biggest shark they’ve brought on board during Shark Fest was a 50-pound Blacktip Shark that was a little more than four feet long.

Sessions for the five-day Shark Fest go throughout the summer and cost about $350 per person. In only its second year, Shark Fest has filled every session they’ve offered to capacity.  Jones says that’s proof that their program is working, and that science really can be cool.

“We’re hoping to expand that in the future.  The program is growing, and it’s become very clear that as many weeks as we can manage to pull off, kids want to come and do this.”