Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Close Encounters of the Toothy Kind

There has been much discussion in the media lately about the sighting of sharks along Cape Cod beaches, with a noticeable increases in media attention following the sighting of a large shark over the weekend, which had decided to check out a kayaker, causing a minor panic among beach goers. Since the first reports came out  about this encounter between man and (rather large) fish, there has been some speculation that what was at first deemed a Great White Shark, may in fact have been an equally large but considerably more docile and relatively harmless Basking Shark, as was noted in this AP report published on the Washington Post website. It remains to be seen exactly what kind of shark was following the kayak (and we may well never know for sure) but all of this press coverage of sharks in New England waters has gotten me thinking about how often these important predators are feared, maligned and generally misunderstood.

So, in the spirit of trying to better understand sharks, I thought I would devote a post to discussing some interesting online resources where people can learn more about them. My own personal experience with sharks (and their relatives) is pretty limited - when I was a kid fishing from shore on Cape Cod we would occasionally catch a Dog Fish and during middle school I recall a field trip to some local harbor or bay where we dredged the bottom and came up with harmless skates that allowed themselves to be lifted gently out of the water for a closer inspection.

As I trolled around the web a bit  (pun intended) one of the first websites to catch my eye was a site maintained by a group called Cape Cod Shark Hunters - an organization involved in shark research projects on Cape Cod, where they are working with the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to help protect both the sharks who call the waters off Massachusetts home for the summer, as well as tourists visiting the cape's beaches. For a little more in-depth look at local shark populations I enjoyed reading the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries, which offers a nice overview of shark natural history on this website, featuring information about several different species known to spend time in Massachusetts waters.

If you would like to get a close-up view of sharks and rays you can also head on over to the New England Aquarium which offers a shark and ray touch tank that gives visitors the opportunity to interact with these animals. As they note on their website:

"Visitors to this new exhibit can reach out and gently stroke cownose rays, bonnethead sharks, Atlantic rays and epaulette sharks as they swim gracefully through the crystal clear water. The exhibit presents these incredible species in a way that highlights their importance in a healthy ocean ecosystem. It also emphasizes the value of conserving essential coastal habitats, such as mangroves and lagoons."

The site also features some great pictures and videos of what visitors can expect to see if they visit the touch tank at the aquarium.

Many websites also offer important advice about how to avoid encounters with sharks such as Great Whites, perhaps most importantly noting that swimmers should be careful not to get too close to seal colonies, which often attract large numbers of hungry sharks. While caution is certainly the order of the day when venturing into the water (and not only because of sharks, of course) I personally find these apex predators to be incredibly fascinating, so it's good to know there are people out there working to help protect sharks and other pelagic fish which play such a crucial role in the marine ecosystem.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

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