Shark summer: RHS grad Alexandra DiGiacomo explores South African waters

For Ridgefield High School graduate Alexandra DiGiacomo, it's been more of a shark summer than a shark week.

“I spent the month of June interning for Oceans Research, an incredible research company stationed in Mossel Bay, South Africa,” said DiGiacomo, member of the RHS Class of 2016 and the Duke University Class of 2020. “I collected data for the projects of several PhD students and resident scientists, which work to improve local marine resource management and conservation.”

DiGiacomo’s favorite project this summer has been working with white shark populations in the bay, which includes taking pictures of the sharks’ unique dorsal fins, as well as measuring their sizes.

Although some may balk at the prospect of spending time with one of the world’s greatest predators, DiGiacomo said it’s just adding to an ever-growing list of ocean acquaintances.

“I’ve been diving with Bull sharks, White sharks, Sand tiger sharks, Lemon sharks, Oceanic Blacktips, Blacktip Reef sharks, Whitetip Reef Sharks, Grey Reef Sharks, Nurse and Tawny Nurse Sharks,” she told The Press last week as Discovery Channel was airing its annual Shark Week programs.

“Getting a glimpse into their lives underwater fascinates me,” DiGiacomo said. “I feel so lucky to have shared space with many beautiful and unique species.”

Not only does she enjoy the experience, but DiGiacomo wants to share what she has learned with others.

Although she has already written a children's book about sharks, she hopes to do more in the future.

“I hope to use filmmaking, and perhaps programs like Shark Week, to communicate the goals and progress of current marine research.”

Looking ahead

She seems to be on the right track.

While studying in Mossel Bay and near the famous Seal Island, DiGiacomo has already played a part in the public's education.

“We spent a few days helping Andy Casagrande, a major videographer for Shark Week, film some breaches for next year’s Shark Week … get excited!"

However, don't mistake this for a summer hobby.

“I’m pretty set on pursuing a PhD in marine science after Duke,” she said.

DiGiacomo also hopes to use a Duke research grant to embark on her own research project soon that would focus on electroreceptive capabilities in white sharks.

“I’d like to explore the extent to which electroreception, the ability of many sharks to detect a heartbeat, affects a shark’s choice to engage with prey.”

For right now, she wants to make one thing perfectly clear.

“When an injury happens on a wildlife reserve, like a lion attack, the general consensus is that the human was in the wrong by invading the animal’s space,” she said. “On the other hand, when there’s a shark-related injury it’s viewed as the shark’s fault, reinforcing the idea of the shark as a man-eating ‘monster.’ Though most sharks are certainly not huggable, cuddly animals, we need to be able to recognize and respect sharks for their incredible predatory abilities and acknowledge that we are guests in their space.”