Landlocked shark expert turned her childhood terror into a career.
By Jeff Blumenfeld
When Boulder marine biologist Mikki McComb-Kobza, Ph.D., first encountered sharks at the age of seven, she was sitting terrified in a movie theater watching “Jaws.” Traumatized, she imagined sharks under her bed, in her closet and under the kitchen table at her childhood home in Arvada.
Later, in elementary school, she used that fright to her advantage, excelling on the school swim team by imagining out-swimming the most fearsome of all sea creatures.
Reading everything she could about sharks, McComb-Kobza turned fear into fascination. “Sharks predate the dinosaur,” she says, “and when we study them, we’re looking back in time.”
Her career breakthrough came when she was hired as a scuba instructor in the Florida Keys and later finished her master’s degree in integrative biology at Florida International University. “I was an explorer in the world’s last great wilderness and had the opportunity to observe sharks up close,” she said. “I was able to spend time with them, to get to know them better.”
These days, McComb-Kobza lives in the landlocked Front Range some 1,100 miles from the sea, but she has participated in more than 30 undersea expeditions in locations spanning the globe: Australia, South Africa, Costa Rica, Belize and Hong Kong, to name a few.
More than 30 percent of shark species are in decline with another 45 percent being data deficient, meaning there is not enough information to classify their status. McComb-Kobza hopes to change all of that, and recently returned from an expedition off the coast of Nova Scotia where she surgically implanted an acoustic tag—about the size of a lipstick tube—into a 13-ft. great white shark as part of a study of its movement along the Atlantic coast. Understanding shark migration patterns helps with species management and recovery planning.
To confirm the sharks’ presence, McComb-Kobza uses baited underwater cameras to record unique fin markings as if they were fingerprints. She also samples shark DNA from the water, and her team created an underwater laser measurement device to assess the size and features of these apex predators.
“Great whites get so big around; they start to resemble footballs with fins, almost like cartoon animals. But they’re beautiful in their own way,” she says. “They really beat the odds when they get that big—they are true survivors.”
Her favorites are the hammerheads, or the Sphyrnidae family of sharks, consisting of nine species. The functional significance of the odd head, termed a “cephalofoil,” has been debated by scientists for decades. She studied its unique hydrodynamic, extremely maneuverable head and confirmed that it confers visual and other sensory advantages over “normal”-shaped shark heads.
As the executive director of the nonprofit Ocean First Institute (OFI) in Boulder, McComb-Kobza has reached 8,000 students in local schools and more than 140,000 students in 35 countries. Her online shark talks, in-school programs titled “The Truth About Sharks,” and student expeditions merge research, education and conservation. “Protecting sharks is an uphill battle,” she admits, “but happily, kids think sharks are rock stars, right up there with dinosaurs.”
McComb-Kobza’s passion for shark education is prevalent in every facet of her life—she’s been known to dress her young son Nicholas in a shark outfit for the annual BOLDERBoulder 10K run. She also enlisted her husband and fellow biologist Mac Kobza to wear a shark costume on the OFI float in the Longmont Parade of Lights (they won the Grand Marshall’s Award for best float entry in 2019).
Her outreach efforts have been documented in film, magazine and radio by the BBC, National Geographic, Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” and CBC National Radio Canada. She was also a featured speaker at the 2019 SharkCon in Tampa, sharing the limelight with cast members from “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
“Humans are born with an innate fear of sharks,” McComb-Kobza says. “But when you look at the facts, it’s unwarranted. There are only an average of four fatal shark attacks in the world each year. More people die by falling vending machines.” (Editor’s note: It’s true. We checked.) “Sharks are the guardians that maintain the ecosystem and health of the ocean. Taking care of sharks is taking care of ourselves.”
For more information, visit oceanfirstinstitute.org.