Shark Week Evaluation

Watching Shark Week years ago, I remember clinging to a pillow as red blood flashed across the TV screen. After hours of what seemed like real footage of vicious shark attacks, I feared Long Island sound beaches and the dark depths of my swimming pool.

As I began to learn more about sharks, I found that the classic Shark Week attack stories were feeding into our largest misconceptions. As the apex predators of the sea, sharks accept us as guests in their environment. As humans flock to the shark’s home more and more every year, occasional contentious interactions occur. Sharks are not the villain they are often made out to be, but instead are incredible creatures that have happily shared their space with divers and millions of swimmers for years.

This year, I returned to the couch to watch what I thought might be bloody attack tales. Though the attack stories still pepper Discovery’s Shark Week line up, I’m excited to see that they are no longer the focus. So far, I’ve seen episodes exploring the hunting behaviors of Oceanic Whitetip sharks in the Bahamas, feeding behavior of White Sharks off of Guadaloupe Island, and shark tagging in New Zealand. I am heartened to see Discovery’s appreciation of sharks and their recognition that we have overfished many shark populations and driven them into depletion.

It’s important to keep in mind  that many of Discovery’s Shark Week programs are dramatized for entertainment. Sharks support healthy ocean ecosystems, and we as humans are ultimately dependent them for our own survival.

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Sand Tiger Sharks: More Social Than Scientists Suspected?

Last month, I wrote about the social capabilities of Port Jackson sharks. Though it’s somewhat simple to imagine small, cuddly Port Jacksons congregating and socializing, it may be much more difficult to imagine toothy, considerably sized Sand tiger sharks interacting in the same way

After all, this photo doesn’t scream conventionally cute and friendly does it?

However, new evidence suggests that Sand tiger sharks are more social than previously thought. In a recent post, Discovery News describes a recent study from University of Delaware scientists that uncovers Sand tiger interaction in the open ocean. Though researchers have explored shark interactions in contained environments in the past, this study provided the first piece of evidence indicating that Sand tiger sharks are sociable in their natural environment. To gather data, scientists attached acoustic tags to over three hundred Sand tiger sharks and tracked their movement patters for about a year. Their conclusions are described by Discovery News:

“The scientists conducted initial data analysis from two individual animals, and found that the sharks enjoyed an active social life year-round. They registered almost 200 encounters with other sand tiger sharks, and interacted repeatedly with the same individuals. The sharks also formed groups that varied in size depending on their location and the time of year.”

Though Sand tiger sharks may need to congregate for mating purposes, and thus for survival, clearly their interactions extend far beyond the basic sociability necessary for survival. In fact, these frequent interactions seem to suggest that sharks are more similar to humans than previously imagined! Studies like these help us to protect sharks by identifying their critical habitats and behavioral patters. Moreover, this study provides evidence that can help humans further identify with sharks and dispel negative myths that cause us to fear them.

Hopefully studies like these will continue to encourage more and more people to respect and appreciate these amazing creatures.


Sharks’ Social Behavior: Solitary or Sociable?

Someone shouts “Shark!” What do you expect to see? For most of us, we may picture the solo great white shark looming ominously below the kicking legs of innocent beachgoers. Or the dorsal fin of one massive tiger shark as it peaks out above a swelling wave. But would we ever picture sharks huddled together in pods like dolphins, or in schools like tuna?

“The general feeling is that sharks are robots — that they’re antisocial and they go around munching and killing things,” Dr. Brown said. “Nobody knows about the social lives of sharks because it’s notoriously hard to track them.” -Dr. Culum Brown, an assistant professor at the Behavior, Ecology and Evolution of Fishes Laboratory at Macquarie

Though it may be evidenced that many larger sharks tend to “fly solo,” is this true of all sharks? Are sharks capable of social interactions like humans? Do sharks exhibit a longing for companionship? How can sharks’ ability or inability to interact socially affect our perception of them? Today we explore these questions.

Researchers in Australia have been studying the social interactions of Port Jackson sharks for several years now. Dr. Culum Brown and his colleagues used many different tracking devices to tag and released Port Jackson sharks. One example would be “Passive integrated transponders, or PIT, tags, slightly larger than a grain of rice, hold electronics that allow them to act as lifelong bar codes that can be detected and read without the animal having to be recaptured.” Dr. Brown and his team have been tracking Port Jackson sharks to explore their interactions with each other. Do they congregate in a specific area? Do their tracking patterns regularly cross paths in one habitat?

The researchers noticed that Port Jackson sharks often congregated together. To determine whether this behavior was due to a preferred environment or a tendency to be social, Dr. Brown simulated the Port Jackson’s natural environment. When placed in an aquarium habitat, “instead of being spread out around the pool, they are always together,” Dr. Brown said. “We’ve seen this in the wild, too, but here, there’s no reason they’d be attracted to anything in the shelter, because it’s all artificial.”

Port Jacksons’ social interactions can indeed help conservation efforts. If people can associate with sharks and recognize familiar behaviors, we may be more open to seeing them as fascinating creatures.

“The fear of sharks is an irrational one,” he said. “It’s hard to get over an irrational fear. But we’re trying to teach people that sharks aren’t mindless killing machines, that sharks are interesting and do interesting things. The reality is that humans kill millions of sharks every year. Most sharks are under threat from us, not the other way around.” -Dr. Brown

**All quotes from this post come from recent article in the New York Times, “Studying Sharks’ Social Lives to Expose Their Friendly Side”

Resolve to Solve

So it’s 2016. Can’t think of a New Year’s Resolution? Have one but you’re looking for more? Already broke yours and looking for a new one?

Ditch the diet resolution this year, and resolve to help solve current environmental management issues! With your help, leading scientists and activists can find the means to effectively deal with environmental crises. And, in fact, you are needed MOST in 2016. As Sylvia Earle says,

“The next five years may be the most critically important of the next 10,000+ years—the best chance our species will have to protect what remains of the natural systems that give us life.”
– Dr. Sylvia Earle

So act now! Here’s a few simple ways to make a difference:

  1. Pledge to Eat SustainablyDownload the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch App to become a sustainable eater today. The next time you’re debating whether to get the Tuna Tartare or Mahi Mahi, type in your choices to see if your dish is a good choice, or something that you should be avoiding. This is one of the easiest ways to think before you eat!

2. Ditch the Plastic!

Make a promise to yourself to limit plastic in your life. Think about using reusable water bottles or shopping bags in 2016. (I have been plastic water bottle free for over three years now! You can too.)

3. Calling All Divers: Dive Against Debris

Work with Project Aware to clean up trash that pollutes our oceans and endangers marine life. Pick a dive near you and jump in! Or you can donate to Project Aware to facilitate the actions of other Dive Against Debris divers

4. Take Project Aware’s Ocean Pledge

Pledge to follow Project Aware’s 10 tips for divers to help protect the ocean. One tip is to shrink your carbon footprint. Can you guess what the others are?

5. Open Ended: Use your unique talents to help fight for the ocean

“Look in the mirror, consider your talents, and think about how you might use them to make a difference. Some have artistic skills, others are good with numbers or have a way with words. Everyone has power to make a difference as an individual, or by joining the company of others who share a common goal. The key is in knowing that what you do matters, including doing nothing!” – Dr. Sylvia Earle

Keeping Shark Tales Alive

In Shaun Morey’s Incredible Fishing Storieshe recounts the tale of Captain Jim Lewis. While snorkeling in the Bahamas, Captain Lewis noticed the tail section of a small plane peeking out of the water’s surface. Or was it? Motoring quickly forward to catch the mysterious landmark, Lewis became enthralled by the sight of a massive hammerhead shark.

Lewis immediately grabbed his mask and jumped into the crystal blue to study this intriguing creature. Longing to bring the shark ashore, Lewis ended up hooking the tiger shark and returning to land. Eventually measured to be 15’6″, the shark was certainly a massive predator atop the food chain (It’s even rumored that this shark had nineteen remoras clinging to its striped body!).

While Captain Lewis and most fishermen of his day ultimately fished sharks out of the water, nowadays scientists are examining new ways to manage shark populations carefully while still appreciating old traditions.

One major movement is toward catch-and-release fishing and the use of circle hooks to prevent cartilaginous damage. In 2010, NOAA began partnering with shark fishing tournaments to collect data for different shark populations. When caught, the sharks are often tagged and analyzed by NOAA scientists. Some tournaments, like the Shark’s Eye Tournament in Montauk, NY, are even designed as fishing tournaments devoted to saving sharks. Data collected can give NOAA insight into population changes, migrations and critical habitats–all information crucial in determining the most effective method for protecting a species. In this win-win situation, sharks, fishermen, scientists and legislators can coexist happily.

A Familiar Fin: Spreading the Word to Future Ocean Ambassadors

Yesterday, I had the privilege of reading for a hundred Kindergarteners and First Grade students at a local elementary school! As I projected the colorful illustrations of A Familiar Fin up on the screen, the children followed the storyline with wide eyes and smiles.

When I began with the usual opener– “raise your hand if you think sharks are awesome”–I was amazed to see so many little hands dart upwards. These students truly gave me hope for the future! With such open minds and excitement, these children made for a wonderful audience. I was honored to sign their books and answer all of their insightful questions about our oceans.


Yesterday’s presentation was also the first time I showed a video of my shark diving experiences in Fiji. The kids loved the video, and were so excited to put the fiction writing together with the reality of my experiences. Check out a fifteen second clip of this video on my website!

Find A Familiar Fin  on Amazon, here.

What Sharks Can Do for You

The question I ask you to explore is not only what you can do for sharks, but also what sharks can do for you. Why do we seek to understand secrets about shark behavior and biology? Besides the fact that sharks are extraordinary and intriguing creatures, for what benefit would we spend thousands of dollars to research sharks?

A recent study from indicates that shark research may give us direct insight into solving some of our land-based world’s most pressing problems.

“New insights into how the neck vertebrae of elephant sharks naturally become fused could help researchers to understand how neck development can go wrong in people affected by disease,” specifically Klippel-Feil syndrome. Scientists hope to learn more about the biological workings behind the fusing of neck vertebrae in sharks. Understanding how this occurs normally may allow scientists to better understand how neck development can go wrong for people affected by this disease.

Shark biology clearly serves as one of many pathways for us to learn to solve important human problems . Catch me at a Ridgefield Elementary School next week as the featured author of their fall book fair! I will be signing and reading books all morning.