Satellite tags help shark scientists all over the world track the ocean's most elusive predators. From Greenland sharks in the Arctic to endangered hammerheads off the coast of Florida, the tags offer an otherwise-impossible view of the mysterious lives of sharks ... but there's a side to using this amazing equipment that we don't often hear about: once it comes off, someone has to go find it ... and sometimes, that's a dirty job.

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"Just over that hill" Image: Daniel van Duinkerken/used with permission

When Shark Spotters research manager Alison Kock contacted scientists at Marine Megafauna Foundation (MMF) about recovering a missing shark tag, 'in the toilet' wasn't on the list of places to look. The tag, which had been attached to a great white shark off the coast of South Africa, had somehow made its way onto Mozambican soil. 

"She was receiving transmissions from outside a town called Chidenguele, about an hour's drive from Tofo [in south-eastern Mozambique]," explains marine biologist and underwater photographer Daniel van Duinkerken, who, along with MMF whale shark researcher Clare prebble, set off to find the AWOL equipment.

"We parked near [the] village and started asking around," says van Duinkerken. "One guy seemed adamant he knew where the tag was and gestured us to follow him. Only problem was, the friendly fellow could not talk. All he could do was emit high-pitched squeals and frantically gesture for us to follow him."

Their silent guide was also heading in the opposite direction of the tag's last known location, but in hopes of recovering the lost data they followed anyway.  

After two hours of luckless wandering the team was ready to throw in the 'Mission Impossible' towel when a passing woman began to jump and cheer. "We shortly joined in the celebration [when] she said she had found the tag on the beach – we were dancing around high-fiving each other. Our murmuring [guide] grabbed my wrist and raised it in the air as if I had just won the century’s greatest boxing match. Everyone was overjoyed," explains van Duinkerken

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Upon entering the woman's village, the team was directed to a pile of dead palm leaves where locals were vigorously digging. "When I approached the digging site, I got a sudden 'espere!' (wait!) from the village chief ... I was a bit baffled [but] hesitantly stood waiting for permission to come closer," van Duinkerken says. 

From the sidelines, the researchers began to understand what was going on: this was no ordinary pile of palm leaves ... the tag had taken a Tom Cruise 'long drop' into the village toilet. 

"After about 10 minutes they started walking back and washing something in a bucket of water. We were eagerly waiting to see if it was the actual tag, and a bit anxious of its state as ... well, it had been [kept] in a hole filled with human faeces."

Exactly why the tag ended up here remains a mystery, but luckily, toilet storage is no match for today's tech. A quick rinse revealed the runaway tag both intact and fully operational – landing the villagers a 700 meticais (about $23) reward.

"The tag will be sent [back] to Alison in South Africa, and will allow for detailed analysis of the archived data. We hope this tag will help unlock some of the secrets of one of nature’s greatest predators."

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The researchers' impromptu guide. Image: Daniel van Duinkerken/used with permission
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Villagers help dig the tag out of the toilet. Image: Daniel van Duinkerken/used with permission
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Curious onlookers gather to meet the researchers. Image: Daniel van Duinkerken/used with permission
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The recovered tag. Image: Daniel van Duinkerken/used with permission