Posts Tagged ‘Shark Week’

Shark U Week: Know Your Sharks

Friday, August 9th, 2013

How well do you know your sharks? Odds are most people only know the sharks that have been portrayed as vicious killers in Hollywood thrillers, such as the mighty great white shark in the 1975 blockbuster hit “JAWS.” But the truth is there are over 400 different types of sharks in our oceans and aquariums all over the world and, despite all the horror stories, sharks do not eat people.

Sharks come in all sizes from the massive whale shark, reaching lengths of 30 feet, to the dwarf lanternfish that’s less than 10 inches. Being able to tell the hammerhead from the nurse shark is quite easy, but others can be difficult. Can you spot the difference between a leopard shark and tiger shark?

How can you tell one from the other?

IT’S ALL IN THE BITE:

IMG_5603Sharks’ teeth are adapted for what they eat. Sharks like the great white and tiger shark have triangular teeth with jagged edges. This keeps hold of larger fish and animals, tear chunks of meat or slice through a turtle’s shell. A sand tiger’s teeth, on the other hand, are long and narrow which make them look frightening, but in fact these types of sharks are not very aggressive. The shape of their teeth is ideal for grabbing a hold of prey. However, the whale shark has very small teeth and it’s not used for biting because they simply filter their food.

SHARK MARKS:

IMG_5627Coloration and patterns play an important role in identifying a shark. Their special marks allow them to camouflage perfectly into their environment. Mako sharks, for example, inhabit tropical and offshore water and are normally a bluish color. On the other hand, the nurse shark has a tan pigmentation ideal for hiding on the ocean’s floor. Tiger sharks can be identified by their stripes and leopard sharks for their spots.

LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION!

Know the sharks that lurk in the water. Sharks can be found all over the world from the warm waters of the Caribbean to the freezing temperatures of the arctic. The Gulf of Mexico alone houses more than 50 different species of sharks including, on the rare occasions, the great white shark. The bull shark and blacktip shark are quite common off the shores of Galveston while the Caribbean reef shark is obviously in the Caribbean.

 

Shark U Week: Sharks 101 Part 2

Thursday, August 8th, 2013

Shark U Week: Sharks 101 Part 1

Tuesday, August 6th, 2013

Shark U Week: The Secret World of Shark Finning

Monday, August 5th, 2013

By Greg Whittaker
Moody Gardens Animal Husbandry Manager 

In early 1999 I found myself in Taiji, Japan working on a marine mammal acquisition for the Beijing Aquarium.  The conservation ethics surrounding “The Cove” are another story deserving its own chapter at another time. While we were working at a Dolphin encounter resort on the outskirts of Taiji, we were staying in a fishing community just to the north called Katsuura.  Every day we drove past the waterfront in Katsuura through the bustle of activity around the fishing markets.  On one of my few days off, I visited the market to see what was being caught and auctioned.  The sheer number of top level predator fishes that were laid out in organized stacks in the football-field-sized warehouse space was amazing.  Tuna, mackerel, billfish and ocean sunfish made up the bulk of the daily catch.  There were also several piles of shark fins stacked 4’ high and spreading over perhaps a 12’ diameter area.  I couldn’t locate any shark bodies in the entire market area, just three or four large heaps of fins.

The shark finning problem had not been as apparent back then, but the lack of carcasses hit me as a tremendous resource waste in a culture that had up to that point appeared contrary to such practice.  We were scrutinized by neighborhood mama-sans for not removing all recyclable materials from our trash.  The few occasions where we ventured through the Taiji waterfront were an incredible lesson in efficiency where the harvested dolphins and whales were carved up for consumption with nearly no waste evident.  How could a people so intimately linked with existing on the natural resources of the sea be so wasteful of their harvest?  It wasn’t until I later learned of the international demand for shark fin soup, that I fully understood what I had encountered in Japan.

Over the course of 3 months, we passed the Katsuura waterfront market daily and a subliminal counter was clicking in my mind.  Six days a week, thousands of tuna, dozens of billfish and those uncountable piles of shark fins every day, rain or shine.  Between the seemingly unscrupulous harvest of entire pods of cetaceans in Taiji and the daily take of finfish in Katsuura, the efficiency of removing these natural resources was mind numbing, and the ocean’s ability to sustain this level of take was something I struggled to understand.

What is Shark Finning?

On one spring morning shortly before our departure from Japan with our dolphins and whales, we had some free time to explore the area.  We happened upon a complex of houses a few streets behind our own that was a processing facility for shark fins.  The entire area was perhaps an acre with a large open space between 3 houses.  The central yard space was filled with 3 tiered clotheslines with two horizontal racks beneath them.  Shark fins were hung on the lines like laundry and all of the horizontal shelving was filled with trays containing drying fins 4 or 5 deep.  There were lines strung between the houses, both first and second stories with similar triangular, gray fins hanging in the sun to dry.  The entire roof surfaces of all 3 houses, including the shorter sheds attached to them, were completely covered with shark fins of all sizes, looking like roof tiles.  There were 2 vans parked in the driveway that were completely stuffed with baskets of dried shark fins inside, and completely covered with drying shark fins on top.  My Australian buddy Wayne and I took pictures and tried to count just a small portion of what we were seeing, but couldn’t even begin to estimate how many sharks were represented by what we saw.  There were likely 10,000 fins drying at that one complex the day we happened upon it.  The staggering thing is that we went back a few days later and there was a completely new batch of fins being processed.

Get schooled about SHARKS at #SharkUWeek at Moody Gardens!

 

Shark U Week: Here’s Your Syllabus

Thursday, August 1st, 2013

Take a bite out of summer during Shark University Week at Moody Gardens Aug. 4 through Aug. 10. Moody Gardens is a proud sponsor of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.

Shark U Week

 

Sharks: A more diverse species than most realize

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

By Greg Whittaker

Working in the zoo and aquarium industry offers a lot of perks. That’s because we get to work with some of the coolest animals in the world.

As I was walking through the exhibits looking at what our guests see, I started counting the species of sharks and rays we house at Moody Gardens® and the diversity they represent in habitat, diet, behavior and natural history. From the secretive swell sharks and wobbegongs to the large active brown sharks and sand tigers, we have 22 species from Galveston’s local waters to Australian reefs from the other side of the world. We have three species of stingrays that are found in the Amazon River basin and are so completely adapted to living in freshwater that they can’t exist in the brackish delta.

One of the questions we answer while walking through the public galleries is, “Where are the sharks?” Over time we’ve come to realize that most guests are referring to the Caribbean exhibit and the large, easily recognizable species.

You might be surprised to hear that four out of these five are relatively common species in the waters just off Galveston. If they truly were the bloodthirsty human predators they’re portrayed to be, we surely would be losing more tourists and fishermen to the sharky menace.Looking at the tremendous diversity of sharks, rays, skates, guitarfish, sawsharks and sawfish all collectively grouped together as cartilaginous fishes, there are over 1,200 different species. The sharks that gain all of the attention are the ones that grab the headlines in “attacks” on humans, and the five that are generally agreed upon as the top “maneaters” are – great hammerhead, lemon, bull, tiger and white sharks.

In reality, the vast majority of the 100 incidents that are reported worldwide annually are cases of mistaken identity with small, non-dangerous species. Contrast those statistics with the estimated 350 to 500 million sharks that are removed from the world’s oceans every year. Many of those are reproductively mature adults of species that are in perilous population declines and in some cases, they have their fins cut off and are dumped back into the water to die.

Even if you don’t particularly like sharks, you have to see how wasteful shark finning is.

Back to the amazing diversity – whale sharks are the largest fish with a maximum length of 45 feet and weighing as much as 36 tons. Along with basking sharks and megamouth sharks as the most menacing-sized sharks, they all filter feed on plankton and small fish. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the tiny cigar shark reaches a maximum size of only about eight inches long.

The biggest ray species is the manta which can have wing tips that measure almost 24 feet wide and weigh almost 3,000 pounds. Electric rays generate powerful electric currents that protect them from predators and assist in navigating dark murky water and capturing prey. Between sharks and rays is an assortment of species that have aspects of their appearance that match both – a  generally flattened body with elongated tails. These include angel sharks, guitarfish, sawsharks and sawfish.

Sharks can fill ecological niches from scavengers to apex predators and have reproductive strategies that include eggs deposited within the reef to complex internal egg incubation, internal hatching and internal cannibalism of siblings.

From this rambling account, you hopefully have gained enough perspective to realize that “sharks” cannot be painted with a simple broad brush stroke. They generally all came from ancient ancestors hundreds of millions of years ago. They fill every available niche and are remarkably adaptable to environmental changes and pressures placed on them.

For every species we can provide care for in the captive aquarium, there are dozens of other species that we simply don’t know enough about.  It’s a safe wager that there are untold numbers of species out there that we haven’t even discovered yet.

Catching Shark Fever: One Man’s Birth of Shark Appreciation

Monday, August 13th, 2012


By: Greg Whittaker

Animal Husbandry Manager at Moody Gardens

As a boy growing up on a farm in upstate New York my world didn’t include sharks.

Unlike many of my colleagues that had aspirations of becoming Marine Biologists, I had no such lifelong dreams. I was content to spend my free time fishing in our pond, hunting in our woods, swimming on my high school team and generally being a free-spirited rural American kid.

I was steered into Marine Biology by my uncle who touted the field as a wide open frontier with high-wage job opportunities and since it involved both the inherent study of biology and water I thought, “Sounds cool.”

So I packed up what I assumed I would need and moved to Galveston to attend one of the top ranked Marine Biology programs in the nation, although secretly I was more excited about living on an island on the Gulf of Mexico. Most aspects of island life were much different than what I was used to, but there was fishing.

Fortunately for me and the local sharks, my undersized tackle and lack of local fishing knowledge ended most interactions with a speedy “catch and release.” As my conservation ethos and fishing experience both grew, these catch and release episodes were based more on my judgment and less on their toothy grins.

The three sharks that I’ve caught and kept have all ended up in my kitchen as my mom always insisted if I killed something I ate it. Shark meat can be prepared to taste very good, but there are several important steps from the moment you catch it to how you cook it that can change the final taste. I didn’t follow any of these steps and as a result, my fishing activities no longer result in sharks coming home for the dinner table.

I had seen JAWS, and the increasingly ridiculous sequels, and I suppose my observations of the natural world kept me from falling prey to the anti-shark hysteria that those movies ingrained in so many viewers. I did gain just enough fear to feel uneasy during all those late night beach parties when we ventured out past the sandbars into the dark unknown.

I’ve come to appreciate that is a normal healthy phobia that we all should have as we’re entering the predators’ world at dinnertime. Many sharks rely on a balance of sight, smell and sensitive electrical sensing to find their food, and the twilight periods before sunrise and after sunset offer them the perfect competitive advantage in locating prey.

I find myself repeating the same speech every couple of years when we’re asked to comment on a local shark bite incident; “avoid swimming at dusk and dawn, always have a buddy to help out if there is a problem and avoid swimming where large schools of bait fish are found.”

Having worked with sharks in the aquarium environment for the last 24 years, I have a great appreciation for their place in the natural world. They are ancient and perfect in their ability to survive in so many specialized niches. They found their various jobs millions of years ago and continue to adapt to changes in the environment and pressures placed on them. Like apex predators in every ecosystem in the world, sharks are losing the battle with humans; habitat destruction, food web interruption, pollution, trophy hunting and simple misinformation based persecution. They are not the malicious killers portrayed in that 1975 movie that is perhaps responsible for many species’ spiraling populations today.

I still go fishing whenever I can get the time, and I still try to catch sharks as they are very worthy adversaries in that primal tug of war. Pictures are taken and care is given to efficiently release them so they can continue to do their job in the world around me.

The ones we keep are destined to become part of our living collection of ambassadors, maintained in as natural an environment as we can achieve so that our guests can come to see and appreciate them for the beautiful creatures they are. Maybe, if we’re successful and luck is on our side, we might even inspire a growing army of conservation minded individuals to re-evaluate our place in the natural world and take steps to ensure that all species have a future.

Shark Week

Monday, August 13th, 2012

One of the most exciting weeks of the year is swimming in and Moody Gardens® is getting in the spirit with a special program and combo deal.

Moody Gardens biologists are celebrating “Shark Week” with a forum on the myths and realities of these amazing sea creatures. The staff will also discuss the process it goes through to care for the sharks housed in the Aquarium Pyramid®.

The 30-minute program will run from Aug. 13 through Aug. 17 at the Aquarium Pyramid’s Ocean View Room. The forum starts at 2 p.m. and is included with aquarium admission at that time.

“We want to dispel some of the myths about sharks and give everyone some history and facts about them,” Moody Gardens Animal Husbandry Manager Greg Whittaker said. “There are also a lot of local sharks in the Galveston area that we will give more information on.”

The program will also feature a trivia contest, where a five lucky winners will get a behind the scenes tour of the Aquarium Pyramid’s Caribbean Exhibit each day.

A special combo pass is also being offered to guests during “Shark Week.” For $23.95, visitors receive tickets to the Aquarium Pyramid® and an aquatic-themed movie at the MG 3D Theater. Movies at the theater include Sharks 3D and The Last Reef 3D. The combo runs from Aug. 12-18.

We will also feature several shark-themed blog posts throughout the week.

“Shark Week,” which has developed a cult following throughout its 25 years on the Discovery Channel, begins on Aug. 12.