Shark project nets Marion girl national interest

By Matthew Bernat | Jun 17, 2013
Courtesy of: Bob Fornaro Nine-year-old Alyssa Fornaro has interviewed leading researchers in marine biology after completing her science project on great white sharks.

Marion — When well-known shark researcher Chris Fischer congratulated a Marion girl on her school science project, media outlets across the nation took notice.

On June 7, Fischer posted a link, and some praise, to Alyssa Fornaro’s blog on his organization’s Facebook page. On her blog “Alyssa’s Says!!!” the nine-year-old writes about friends, trips she’s taken, and the subject of Fischer’s interest – her project on great white sharks. Scientists from OCEARCH, which is Fischer’s non-profit organization, travel the world to study marine life. Its Facebook page is “liked” by almost 70,000 people.

Within two days, Alyssa’s father Bob Fornaro said his email inbox was flooded with media inquires, about 400 in total.

Radio stations in Florida, newspapers in California, and an ocean advocate known as “Shark Girl” all wanted to speak about the Sippican School student’s project.

Using Ocean Research’s online “shark tracker” Alyssa followed the migratory pattern of a 16-foot, 3,456-pound great white shark. Named Mary Lee, Fischer and his team tagged the shark with a satellite responder off the Cape Cod coast in 2012. Every time Mary Lee breaches the water’s surface her location is marked online. For months, Alyssa tracked Mary Lee’s movement up and the down the East Coast.

After a chance encounter in a restaurant, Alyssa and Mr. Fornaro reached out to leading scientists in the field of shark research. The two spoke about how to present her project at the school’s science fair when a stranger approached.

“This was early in the project and we were talking about how to present the information when a man walked over and said, ‘My name is John Chisholm, and I helped tag Mary Lee,’” Mr. Fornaro said.

“We didn’t even know he was there!” Alyssa exclaimed.

Chisholm, of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, told them how the shark was tagged; a cradle held Mary Lee as crew members franticly tried to attach the responder. Crew members only had 15 minutes. Any longer, and the pressure of the cradle on the shark’s body may have injured it.

Meeting Chisholm prompted Alyssa and her father to contact scientists at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod to learn more.

Mr. Fornaro said the network of scientists and marine biologists they spoke to helped Alyssa develop her science project. Eventually, they caught up with Fischer, who is a founding member of OCEARCH.

Alyssa’s project was finished when she called Fischer, but she still had questions on shark behavior.

How did she develop questions for Fischer? “I just thought of whatever I wanted to know about sharks. I don’t know. They just kind of came to me,” she said.

Initially, Fischer agreed to a 15-minute interview. An hour later, the two were still deep in talks over video chat, with Alyssa asking questions.

Fischer has appeared on television, including the Discovery Channel where he is a commentator during “Shark Week.” His crew was also the subject of the History Channel show “Shark Wranglers.”

But even with his expertise, Alyssa managed to stump Fischer with one question.

“Not even Chris Fischer can answer this one,” Alyssa said. “I’m not sure anyone can. Why was Mary Lee going up the coast in the winter? No one knew that sharks could survive in water that cold.”

Mary Lee had been as far south as Florida, when she swam up the coast in February. Her location surprised the scientific community. Until then, researchers were unsure if sharks could thrive in the frigid water.

“Alyssa is showing true leadership. We encourage all generations to get involved, continue to learn more about the ocean, and continue to protect it,” Fischer wrote on his Facebook post. Following the interview, Fischer agreed to travel to Sippican School to speak about sharks on June 19.

After Fischer’s interview Alyssa spoke with Jillian Morris, who calls herself “Shark Girl.” The OCEARCH Facebook post alerted Morris to Alyssa’s project.

“She’s seen a lot of sharks, she’s petted sharks, she’s - well, her name is Shark Girl so I think it’s kind of obvious she’s interested in sharks,” Alyssa said.

Morris is a Bahamas-based marine videographer dedicated to changing the public’s perception of sharks. On her blog, "The Adventures of Shark Girl," she posted a snippet of her interview with Alyssa.

“Sharks are in deep trouble around the globe and Alyssa is a great ambassador showing kids they can be heard and they can make a difference,” Morris wrote.

In the three weeks since her daughter’s science project was noticed Mr. Fornaro said media requests have waned. Last week, he said Alyssa would not give more interviews; it’s been time consuming, he said. However, he said, Alyssa can study sharks, or anything else, as long as she wants to.

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