Known affectionately on social media as the Shark Doctor, O’Connell ceaselessly searches for ways to conserve marine wildlife and protect oceanic species from extinction, specifically sharks.
Craig O’Connell, PhD ’14 never knew true fear until he looked into the eye of a shark. On a trip to the Florida Keys during his junior year of high school, he took a mammalogy course that included snorkeling as part of their curriculum. He was beyond thrilled to be part of this experience, having been an avid fan of Shark Week and every shark special that aired on the Discovery Channel since he was a child.
Naturally drawn to the pull of the ocean’s current, O’Connell strayed from the pack and ended up face to face with a shark for the first time of many in his life. In this instance, he was gripped by the rawest kind of fear, but also amazed by the shark’s calm nature as the pair watched one another across open waters. He’d heard so many horrifying stories of shark attacks and watched the classic movie Jaws that gave sharks their bad reputation.
“I realized that our fear of sharks is a fabrication,” O’Connell said. To his surprise, the shark didn’t lunge after him, bloodthirsty for a human. Rather, it swam away and left him alone. “Sharks aren’t man-eating monsters, and that was another moment in my life where I said that I just wanted to get people to see marine life the same way I see it.”
From that pivotal moment, O’Connell made it his mission to get the best education possible so he could teach others about marine life, specifically sharks, and how humanity can peacefully coexist with the aquatic ecosystem. O’Connell was interested in investigating ways to protect sharks and other sea creatures from harm, so he decided to pursue a PhD program that would deepen his research interests and give him incredible opportunities that would later become critical aspects of his fight to keep all species of sharks alive for many generations to come.
O’Connell found that UMass Dartmouth’s School of Marine Science & Technology had exactly what he was looking for. O’Connell said, “I really liked what SMAST had to offer. I got lucky when I wrote an email to Dr. Pingguo He and found his research focus was almost identical to what I wanted to do, which is conservation engineering. Next thing I knew, I was touring the facilities and getting accepted into the program.”
SMAST lets Corsairs be scientists
Upon the start of his PhD program at SMAST, O’Connell found the faculty and staff to be the cornerstone of success in the many marine science programs at the institution. They took extra steps to ensure he had unparalleled experiences that made his research riveting, yet educational.
“I was doing conservation research projects that required me to get special permission to dive outside the cage with great white sharks, which isn’t a normal thing,” O’Connell said. “I specifically remember Mike Marino going out of his way to try and make sure that I could do this study and everyone gave me the ability to be independent with my research, which is what I needed to be fully prepared for the future. SMAST let me be a scientist.”
Located in the heart of the nation’s top fishing port, O’Connell was particularly struck by how SMAST harnessed the community’s marine science knowledge to bolster their research initiatives and develop reliable relationships with neighboring fisheries. The waters were murky for him when it came to sparking mutually beneficial partnerships with fishermen, but lessons taught by SMAST faculty showed him how to strengthen that skill and use it to his research’s advantage.
While researching his proposed conservation barrier, which is a electro-magnetic and visual deterrent that minimizes the risk of a negative encounter with large and potentially dangerous shark species, as a student, O’Connell said, “Those collaborative skills came in handy when I partnered with fishermen in the Gulf of Maine. I loved experiencing the excitement of working together towards an end goal.”
O’Connell found that exhilarating collaborative nature to be ingrained in every aspect of SMAST, including his PhD committee. On his committee was current SMAST Dean Kevin Stokesbury, someone who challenged this shark enthusiast every step of the way to make him a better marine scientist. O’Connell said, “In order to learn, you need to be challenged. Dean Stokesbury wanted to make sure that I knew what I was doing, and that was the most important thing. He didn’t take it easy on me, but it was that very challenge that helped make me a better scientist and helped pave a road towards success.”
Now an accredited scientist with a PhD under his belt, O’Connell stands tall as a beacon of change and has embarked on a career centered on his research done at SMAST. With ocean wildlife preservation at the top of his list, he continues to work long days and even longer nights to produce innovative conservation technologies that will ensure the safe cohabitation of ocean animals and humans alike.
Saving sharks with critical research
O’Connell is perfecting his conservation barrier by testing it in various shark hotspots, like the Bahamas and Cape Cod. These are steps that he wouldn’t have been able to take without gaining valuable insights from work done during his PhD program at SMAST.
“I did work on a very similar magnetic barrier technology for my PhD, and tested it on great whites, bull sharks, and tiger sharks,” said O’Connell. “I wanted to see if you could keep sharks away from a beach without hurting them, to see if sharks and humans can coexist peacefully. We’re hoping that we can do some exclusion trials next year, but what I was doing during my PhD still contributes to what I’m doing today.”
With places like South Africa and Australia killing off sharks to minimize potential risk factors, there is a sense of urgency for O’Connell to finalize this protective barrier. In the meantime, he started a nonprofit organization, O’Seas Conservation Foundaton, Inc., to educate high school students on marine science and one of the world’s most feared animals: sharks.
“I volunteer six weeks every summer to teach high school kids. Where I see myself having the biggest impact is educating and inspiring the next generation of conservationists and biologists. I take them out on the boat, and they help me tag different types of sharks,” said O’Connell. “It’s one of the most rewarding things that I could do. I’ve been given this incredible education, so I feel like it’s my job to share it with the world. It makes me feel like I’m giving back to the next group of kids who have this same passion and want to be inspired to save marine life.”
O’Connell is also a marine scientist and yearly Shark Week host for the Discovery Channel, something he always dreamed of doing since he was a boy. Aside from hosting 3 to 8 attention-gripping episodes every year, his job is to go to foreign countries and immerse viewers in the marine science realm by describing what he’s seeing in an educational, yet compelling manner.
“On kids’ book bags, they have extinct dinosaurs on them. I just hope one day, those aren’t sharks,” said O’Connell. “I hope that’s not the only thing we have left of them, a picture on a book bag. Now that I have kids, I would feel guilty if I didn’t give my maximum effort to make this planet a better place for them. If I don’t do everything in my power to conserve sharks so my kids can see them when they’re my age, then I feel like I’ve failed.”
In a world where misconceptions often overshadow reality, O’Connell’s dedication to preserving marine life is actively reshaping the relationship between sharks and humans. As he continues to pioneer efforts to promote a harmonious balance in the aquatic ecosystem, his actions deteriorate stereotypical understandings of sharks as vicious beasts and contribute to their rescue in nations all over the world.