‘Cocaine sharks’ off Florida may be feasting on dumped bales of drugs

Over the years, vast sacks of cocaine have been spotted on Florida beaches after being transported out of South and Central America. Hauls are typically placed in the ocean (both for smuggling and to deceive law enforcement), and the waves and currents drive them toward shore. In June, authorities from the U.S. Coast Guard seized more than fourteen hundred pounds (6,400 kilograms) of cocaine from the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, with an estimated value of $186 million.

With all the cocaine being injected into the water, Tom “The Blowfish” Hird was determined to know if the sharks that are spotted in the thousands that are found in Florida are taking in the narcotics that were dumped and should they be, if so, whether the drugs were influencing the sharks. In the documentary “Cocaine Sharks,” which is part of Discovery’s Shark Week, Hird and University of Florida environmental scientist Tracy Fanara conduct an array of tests to determine.

“The deeper story here is the way that chemicals, pharmaceuticals and illicit drugs are entering our waterways — entering our oceans — and what effect that they then could go on to have on these delicate ocean ecosystems,” Hird said on Live Science.

The Shark Week show examines whether sharks come into contact with the cocaine bales dumped into the ocean off Florida. (Image source Philip Thurston/Getty Images)

Hird and Fanara have set their sights on The Florida Keys, where fishers relate stories about sharks taking substances transported into the area by sea currents. The show features swimming with sharks in search of unusual behavior and then begins to observe sharks behaving in unique ways. One hammerhead ( Sphyrna mokarran) -one of the species that is usually wary of people is directly at the crew while swimming in a wacky manner. A shipwreck is sixty feet (18 meters) below the water’s surface. Hird is confronted by a shark called a Sandbar ( Carcharhinus plumbeus), which appears focused on something and swims in tight circles even though nothing is visible.

To study further, Hird and Fanara designed three experiments to determine what happens to sharks when they encounter bales filled with “cocaine” dropped in the water. They make packages similar in size and appearance to authentic cocaine bales. In the beginning, first, they place these fake bales alongside dummy swans so that they can check out what the sharks will be up to. They were surprised when they saw the sharks veer straight for the bales and eat from them. One shark even catches a bale and then swims away with it.

A haul of marijuana and cocaine was confiscated from the U.S. Coast Guard authorities in Florida in February 2022. (Image credit Miami Herald/Getty Images )

They then create a highly concentrated fish powder. This will trigger a dopamine surge similar to a dose of cocaine as they could legally (and ethically) achieve. The sharks are shown going wild. “I think we have got a potential scenario of what it may look like if you gave sharks cocaine,” Hird stated on the screen. “We gave them what I think is the next best thing. [It] set [their] brains aflame. It was crazy.”

Then, the group drops the fake bales of cocaine off an aircraft to simulate an actual drop of cocaine, and a variety of shark species, such as the tiger sharks ( Galeocerdo cuvier), are allowed to enter.

Hird claimed that what they found doesn’t necessarily indicate whether sharks living in Florida are taking cocaine. There are a variety of factors that could be the reason for the behavior that was observed during filming. These tests must be repeated repeatedly to ensure the conclusions are accurate.

“We have no idea what [cocaine] could do to the shark,” Hird said on Live Science, adding that of the minimal research conducted, different fish species react differently with the exact chemical. “So we can’t even say well this is a baseline and go from here,” Hird explained.

He said he hopes the investigation will result in further research in this area. He would like to conduct additional tests, such as on blood and tissue samples, to determine whether cocaine is present in the sharks’ bodies.

And it’s not just the cocaine that could be a problem. “The other thing we might find is this long flow, [this] drip of pharmaceuticals: caffeine, lidocaine, cocaine, amphetamine, antidepressants, birth control — this long slow drift of them from cities into the [ocean] is… starting to hit these animals,” Hird stated.


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