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


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

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.

NABS Youth Group Dives into Action

The National Association of Black Scuba, or NABS, hosted another successful year for the Youth Educational Summit. For this year’s 9th annual summit, these kids were given the opportunity to visit Moody Gardens, an educational research destination in Galveston, Texas. In conjunction with NOAA, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, young adults ages 12 to 18 travel throughout the state to learn about marine life.

Youth participating in the Summit toured the Aquarium Pyramid at Moody Gardens and received behind-the-scenes access. Each student was then able to pilot a mini-RO V, remote operated underwater vehicle, in the South Pacific exhibit. NOAA staff and Moody Gardens’ associates were able to educate the benefits of the mini-ROVs and its role in the marine environment.

These activities encourage young adults to broaden their horizons beyond a college experience to include diving and participating in these organizations, noted Chanel McFollins, a four-year member of NABS.

On a deeper and more intimate level, two of the older youth, both certified and experienced divers, participated in a dive session. The two suited up in and swam into the Aquarium Pyramid’s largest tank. Moody Gardens Aquarium Pyramid is one of the largest on the Gulf Coast, featuring four distinct ocean environments.

Holding more than 1.5 million gallons of water, the two NABS Summit divers swam in the tank with sharks, tunas and barracudas. On the other side of the glass, fellow group members wave from behind the acrylic tunnel with smiles across their faces.

“This was a way for me to share my knowledge, my job and the fun things I get to do with someone else,” said Elizabeth Foster, Moody Gardens’ Dive Safety Officer. “It was a way to give an opportunity to someone who wouldn’t have otherwise been able to have these experiences.”

The mission at NABS is to bring together youth with an interest in the marine sciences; providing them with educational experiences that enhance their knowledge of and respect for marine life, while promoting safe and skilled exploration of the seas through scuba diving.

Each year, NABS youth group travel to different parts of the country and learn about marine life. T.J. Bentley, a long-time member of NABS, particularly enjoyed this year’s trip.

“We’ve done more volunteer work this year and more things for the community to help the organization,” said Bentley. “We get the chance to do what we want to do.”

 

Welcome Riley to Moody Gardens!

Another holiday special gift has been given to Moody Gardens this season. Riley, pictured above is the newest addition to our North Atlantic seal exhibit. Riley is an estimated 20 pound seal that is making great progress and making its home here at Moody Gardens.

Baby Riley with mom Presley

The pup is a harbor seal is born to the parents of Presley and Porter who met in 2006. These two seals have had a journey of their own to get to Moody Gardens. Porter, who was rescued near death off the coast of Maine after being abandoned by his mother, made his home here in 2001. He had been bottle fed and nursed back to heath by workers at Marine Animal Lifeline, but after an infection destroyed his eye biologists decided Porter would not be able to survive in the wild. Five years later, Presley joined the Moody Gardens family after her caretakers at Memphis Zoo determined the young harbor seal needed a companion. Although Presley and Porter have conceived in the past, this is the couple’s first successful birth.

“Our seal exhibit is now a complete picture of our dedication to animal rescue and conservancy,” Whittaker said and added that addressing special needs is a key part of the Moody Gardens mission. “Riley is an adorable new addition to our family and a heartwarming gift for all of us.”

We are very excited about our new pup and hope you can come down to see Riley for yourself! If you want to see the harbor seal then take a look at the live seal web cam on www.moodygardens.org.

Where in the World is Atlas?

It’s time to check in with Atlas, our 362 pound loggerhead sea turtle friend that we released back in July. Atlas hasn’t wasted anytime exploring the Gulf since his release. He’s been down the Texas coast and even ventured into Mexico, before heading off to the Louisiana Coast. What a detour! So where will Atlas journey to next? Maybe he’s headed to the Bahamas? Or maybe he’s trying to draw a pattern and will head back to Galveston! Wherever he goes, you can keep track of him too by visiting http://www.seaturtle.org/tracking/index.shtml?project_id=652

Here’s a little background on Atlas and his release:

Biologists from Moody Gardens partnered with officials from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to release 10 endangered sea turtles, including Atlas, a loggerhead sea turtle on display in the Aquarium Pyramid® since 2004. They were released on July 14, 20 miles off the coast of Galveston.

Atlas came to Moody Gardens in June of 2004 from the Six Flags amusement park in Aurora, Ohio, with the intent that he would one day be released back into the wild. Moody Gardens biologists provided for his health and welfare to help prepare for his eventual release. In 2010, Atlas was taken off exhibit so biologists could prepare him for life in the wild by allowing him to search for food on his own, thereby removing the connection between humans and food instilled in him by years of captivity.

Where do you think Atlas will end up next?

Sharks: Fact vs. Fiction


A recent string of shark sightings along the Texas Gulf Coast has sparked a flurry of media interest and has beach-goers questioning their safety in the salty waters. According to recent reports, two large sharks were caught from the shorelines at Crystal Beach and Matagorda Bay and a college student was bitten at Surfside Beach, adding to the animosity between man and fish that Steven Spielberg helped permeate our culture nearly four decades ago.

While the image of massive aquatic beasts breaking the surface to swallow anything in sight has been burned into our collective consciousness via Jaws or the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, several experts, including those at Moody Gardens, say that sharks are misunderstood creatures and it’s important that humans learn to respect them and know how to safely share the ocean with them.

For any who are apprehensive about visiting Galveston and going to the beach because of what may be swimming beside them the water, here’s a breakdown of shark fact and fiction to help shed some light on whether or not their reputation is deserved.

FICTION: Increased sightings of sharks in the Texas Gulf Coast means I’m more likely to get bitten if I go swimming.

FACT: Instances of sharks attacking humans are extremely, extremely rare. According to Roy Drinnen, Moody Gardens’ assistant curator of fishes, while there are numerous sharks that make their home in the waters off Galveston Island, there have only been approximately 11 shark bites reported in the Galveston Bay area in the last 100 years.

“There are sharks out there. That’s their home. We basically are visitors when we go swimming. We have to expect them to be out there,” Drinnen said. “You have a better chance being struck by lightning or killed by a group of bees.”

FICTION: Sharks are a bigger threat to humans than humans are to sharks.

FACT: Humans are a huge threat to sharks, as overfishing is the biggest threat to their existence. A soup made from shark fins is a delicacy in many countries. Sharks are routinely caught and thrown back into the ocean to die after their fins are chopped off in a process called “finning.” Finning is now prohibited in the United States.

FICTION: There’s nothing you can do to reduce your chances of being attacked by a shark.

FACT: Swimmers can take numerous precautions to reduce their chances of being mistaken for prey by a shark. A few tips include:

  • Avoid swimming at dawn and dusk (sharks’ typical feeding time)
  • Avoid wearing any shiny, flashy clothing or jewelry that a shark can mistake for a fish in the Gulf’s murky waters
  • Leave the water if you are bleeding in any way, as sharks are attracted to the smell of blood.

Overall, sharks are beautiful animals that deserve respect more than fear. While sharks are plentiful in the Gulf of Mexico with approximately 15 species inhabiting the waters around Galveston, attacks are few and far between.

To learn more about sharks, visit the Sharks: In Depth exhibit, currently in the Aquarium Pyramid at Moody Gardens®.


King Penguin Chick Joins Moody Gardens Family

Well, folks, we have good news to share with you.

On Monday, Feb. 15, we welcomed our first king penguin chick of the year into the world! The newborn weighed in at healthy 190 grams and is growing rapidly by the minute! Lando and Littlefoot are the parents.

We found shell fragments during our morning cleaning, and sure enough, egg had hatched! Throughout the breeding season, our role is to monitor that parents are, well, being the parents. We are there to make sure the birds are healthy and provide support only when needed.

King Chick Being from the Southern Hemisphere of the world, and more specifically, South Georgia Island, the penguins observe opposite seasons from Texas. This makes winter in the Continental U.S. their summer time and the prime breeding season. King penguins, unlike their smaller counterparts such as chinstrap and gentoo penguins, carry the unhatched eggs and newborns in between their feet while the parents take turns. Because of the way the eggs are handled, penguin eggs are much thicker and more durable than regular bird eggs. The incubation period of this species of penguins is longer than that of the smaller species and lasts about two months. Once chicks are born, they also take longer to become full grown.

Speaking of smaller species, we now have a total of four gentoo chicks, all growing healthy, in the back holding area of the South Atlantic Exhibit, where they will remain until they are fledged out and are strong enough to swim. While penguins are built to swim, as chicks, they seem to trade cuteness for buoyancy. By doing this, we can prevent any accidents.

The king chick will be on exhibit with its parents for a few more weeks. Check our Webcam periodically to catch us feeding the birds or just simply watch them chill out.

Stay cool,
Chris St. Romain
Moody Gardens Penguin Biologist

Second Annual Penguin Groundhog Day

Penguin ShadowIf you are anxious to know when this arctic winter is going to be over with, you are in luck. This Groundhog Day, a real Moody Gardens penguin will forecast spring on Galveston Island at Moody Gardens Tuesday, Feb. 2 in anticipation of spring break. In groundhog fashion, an Aquarium Pyramid bird will make its own prediction based on whether or not it sees its shadow. The penguin will then communicate with Greg Whittaker, Moody Gardens animal husbandry manager, who will translate the “Penguish” declaration into the human language.

General public is invited to witness the Penguin Groundhog Day ceremony and proclamation. Admission is free. Please meet us in front of the Aquarium Pyramid.

AT A GLANCE
What: Penguin Groundhog Day
When: Tuesday, Feb. 2 at 10:30 a.m.
Where: Aquarium Pyramid (Outside)
Admission: Free and open to the public

King Tux Picks a Baby Penguin Name

The winning name is SQUIRT! Congratulations and thank you to Laurel Sterling from Crosby, Texas for the great name! Laurel also won a family four-pack to the Moody Gardens attractions and a penguin encounter which gives her a chance to meet a real penguin up close and personal.

Having trouble viewing the video? Watch it on YouTube: Name the Baby Penguin Contest Winner Announced