Tail swishing elegantly, Fin slips by the algae-covered shipwreck with a school of fish companions unconcerned by the rows of sharp curved teeth jutting out of his mouth.
Fin is one of dozens of sand tiger sharks documented so far in a new citizen science program off the North Carolina coast. Divers can upload their photos of sand tiger sharks to the Spot A Shark USA website and get notified when others photograph the same shark.
“We map spots along the side of the shark and use that pattern to identify a particular shark just like you use fingerprints in a human,” said lead researcher Avery B. Paxton of the South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction and Conservation. “If a diver takes a photo of a shark and a few months later someone else sees that same shark, we can start to stitch together a picture of what shipwrecks or parts of the ocean the shark has been to.”
Sand tiger sharks love hanging out in the “Graveyard of the Atlantic,” the scores of shipwrecks off the N.C. coast, Paxton said. So do the millions of divers and snorkelers who visit N.C. each year. These divers often photograph sand tiger sharks, known for their spotted sides, fearsome grin and docile nature.
“I look at them like puppies,” said Lauryn McLaughlin, instructor at Gypsy Divers in Raleigh. “They’re calm and cute. If you let them do their thing and just watch, they might come up to you and give you a pectoral high five.
“If I see a shark, I’ll get in the water with it. People think it has the look of being a vicious killer, but it’s just like people: you come across very nice people and very mean people, depends on the day and their mood.”
One goal of the project is to increase awareness of sand tiger sharks, which were decimated in the 1980s and '90s by unregulated fishing.
“[Sand tiger sharks] are a great ambassador for sharks and rays globally,” said Hap Fatzinger, director of the N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores. “We try to dispel the myths and fears around sharks. When you’re in the ocean there are sharks around you, and we don’t fall into their menu. In the wild you can dive in a space with 50 sand tiger sharks in the water.”
One of eight “species of concern” in the greater Atlantic, 75 percent of sand tigers were killed in past decades. Now scientists want to study the species. The information we learn in North Carolina can help other populations of sand tiger sharks, Fatzinger said.
“We want to understand how the animals are using the shipwrecks, their migration patterns, their social patterns — all of these different life history patterns that are still a mystery,” Fatzinger said. “We’re hoping to answer a lot of these questions and apply what we’re learning to populations that are critically endangered around the world.”
A collaboration between zoos, aquariums, foundations and universities, Spot A Shark USA is based on Spot A Shark, a similar program tracking sharks on the east coast of Australia. Fewer than 500 sand tiger sharks are left on that coast, Paxton said.
Managing sand tiger shark populations is tricky because these sharks are slow at reproducing. A female shark must be nine or 10 years old before she can have pups, and she waits several years between her nine-month pregnancies. Scientists have recorded wild sharks living for 17 years, and aquarium sharks up to 25 years, which doesn’t leave much time to have pups.
The more information that scientists can get their hands on, the more we can understand and help sand tiger sharks. Citizen science programs such as Spot A Shark USA engage the public in science and help scientists collect data.
“It’s a great way to make people more aware of the things I’m studying, and give people a chance to participate in a way that’s meaningful to them,” Christine Goforth, head of Citizen Science at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, said. “I hope that by participating in citizen science, you learn more about the world around you and learn more about the scientific process and your role in it.”
Divers can upload old and new photos of sand tiger sharks to spotasharkusa.com. Paxton asks that divers try to include the side of the shark so she can map the spots.
You can also adopt a shark, name it and receive email updates whenever someone photographs it.