Grandmother, retired professor counts sharks and rays. They count on her, too.

A retired grandmother of four in landlocked Mount Vernon, Ohio holds the distinction of being the top volunteer for the largest shark and ray survey on the planet.

Spending thousands of hours on her computer in her living room, Patricia Heithaus looks for life on coral reefs. Video comes in from all across the world. Scientists count on her to count the sharks and rays. FIU students count on her data to help them graduate on time. The sharks and rays may not know it, but they’re counting on her too.

Pat Heithaus

Each video she watches, she observes, she counts and she documents. She is one of hundreds of volunteers all across the world who are reviewing more than 15,000 hours of footage captured by scientists as part of Global FinPrint. But Patricia isn’t just any volunteer. She has logged more viewer data than any other volunteer working on the project. She also just happens to be the mother of one of the project’s lead scientists — Mike Heithaus, dean of the College of Arts, Sciences & Education.

Global FinPrint — which received support from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation — surveyed 371 reefs using underwater video cameras. Researchers recently published groundbreaking findings from the project identifying the hotspots and trouble spots for the world’s sharks and rays. But before they were able to complete that research, someone needed to watch the videos. Patricia tackled nearly 2,000 hours over the course of several years on her own, accounting for more than 10 percent of the total footage that has been logged to date.

While this type of work was new to Patricia, she isn’t new to science. Before she retired, she taught biology and served as director of labs at Kenyon College in Ohio.

Her job as a FinPrint volunteer was filled with watching and waiting. She’d wait for the slightest flicker of movement at the edges of the screen. Morning turned into afternoon. She’d wait for a fin to peak around the corner. The voices of National Public Radio announcers filled the room. She’d wait for a shark, ray, fish or turtle to emerge from the deep blue. Her husband, Ray, would pop in to bring her another cup of tea to help keep her focused — and caffeinated.

The work requires a certain vigilance, a careful eye and complete concentration. Sometimes, the animals are there. Then, in the blink of an eye, gone. When one moves into the frame, Patricia pauses the video. Using special software, she draws a circle around the creature and selects what it is from a pulldown menu.

Hours pass by like this. Two videos is her daily goal. Each one is 90 minutes long — about the average length of a movie. Because she is carefully documenting what she sees, one video could take three to four hours to document. Sometimes, she spends entire days in front of her computer, only breaking for a quick workout.

“Pat went above and beyond the volume and detail expected from volunteers and has been the ultimate ‘gran-notator,” Mark Bond, who oversaw the Florida Keys surveys, said. “The data collected from the Keys will help tell a more comprehensive story about what is going on in that ecosystem.”

As Bond points out, Patricia is certainly not the “typical” video watcher. She pays careful attention to everything that crosses the screen. More than counting fish, the data gives scientists a never-before-seen look at what’s happening on some of the world’s reefs. It’s helping pinpoint areas that need protection and conservation intervention.

When Mike told her about the project, she thought it could be fun. For the woman who first taught one of FIU’s leading shark experts how to swim as a little boy, she says she didn’t actually volunteer to help him. After decades in the classroom, Global FinPrint gave her a way to help students again.

When deadlines would loom and the pressure was on for the students, they knew they could rely on her. Whatever it would take, Patricia would do it. Even if it meant her long days of watching video would become longer, she was willing to push through to help get a student closer to the finish line of completing their Ph.D.

“Mama Heithaus did a tremendous amount of work. Her meticulousness and speed at identifying so many species was a tremendous help for the whole lab when we all needed it the most,” said Camila Cáceres, who worked in the Heithaus Lab and earned her Ph.D. in May with Patricia’s help. “No one in the lab could have done it without her help.”

The experience has been enjoyable, even calming, for Patricia. She has seen things few have seen. Some videos were like gazing into a fish tank filled with jewel-colored tropical fish and crystal-clear water. In others, the water was so cloudy, it was difficult to discern anything through the murk. She’s seen shark after shark glide over reefs. She’s seen empty reefs, too — where no amount of waiting brought a single a shark.

Some footage has stayed with her. Giant Moray eels in French Polynesia, sometimes battling one another for food. Groupers swimming around in circles, doing an almost choreographed mating display. And, perhaps one of her favorite moments — the time she spotted a shark with a semi-circle of gleaming white dots along its side. Those little white dots were teeth — souvenirs left behind from another shark, who had gone on the attack.

Despite watching thousands of hours of video, Patricia is still game for more. She’s currently working on files from French Polynesia.

At this point, she’s got her routine down. NPR will be playing. Ray will continue bringing her tea. And she’ll keep doing what she’s done since the beginning — waiting and watching and documenting.