Saving Sharks: A Great White Encounter

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20030523a-dscn0132It’s either at the very top of your bucket list, or the number one thing you would never, ever dare to do: Swim with great white sharks.  

Here at the Texas State Aquarium, we’ve got some pretty brave souls. We have those who dive with the sand tiger sharks in our Islands of Steel exhibit; those who help give our 400-lb alligator Bo a physical, and even those work every day with our raptors, or birds of prey. But one of the bravest is Suraida Nanez-James, our manager of distance learning and outreach, who not only studied and helped to identify great whites; she cage dived with them, too.

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Nanez-James is pictured wrestling bait back from a great white.

Back in the summer of 2003, Nanez-James was working on earning her undergraduate degree in Marine Fisheries at TAMUG and scored the opportunity to work for six weeks as a research intern for the now-defunct White Shark Trust Organization in Gansbaai, South Africa, A.K.A. the great white capital of the world.

Nanez-James and the rest of the crew were most interested in tracking demographic information of great whites in the area, i.e., recording data based on sex, length, and distinguishing marks.

“A big part of it was trying to get them to surface for us,” says Nanez-James, “Ideally, we were trying to study and ID their dorsal fins.” 20030606d-dscn0028

Research leader Michael Scholl called the process “finprinting,” and Nanez-James says it was a tad harder than it sounds.

After going about ten miles out in a rather pint-sized boat (cue Jaws quotes), their nine hour day began.

“We had to chum the water, and then drop bait, trying to get them close to the boat and to breach the water,” Nanez-James explains.

She said the task was made more difficult because the team didn’t want the sharks actually biting the buoys attached to the bait, or eating all of the bait. The object was not to feed the legendary creatures, but to lure them up to get photos for data purposes.

Nanez-James says it’s an experience she will never forget.

20030601b-dscn0139“I wasn’t scared of them, but let me tell you; it definitely gives you a healthy respect for them as predators. It was amazing to be able to get that close to them and just be aware of their grace and agility,” she says with awe. “Not only are they incredibly fast and agile for their size, they are super smart, too. They would learn where we were going to drop the bait and anticipate it before we even did it.”

A dearth of important information was recovered from the project, helping to support great white conservation efforts and also data in general.

“There’s just so much we don’t know about them – their migration patterns, where they breed, when and why they travel and why they travel so far,” Nanez-James says of the species.

Nanez-James

Nanez-James

Thanks to the efforts of scientists like Nanez-James and organizations like OCEARCH, Discovery’s Shark Week, and the shark tagging work done by Greg Stunz of the Harte Research Institute, we now know so much more and are learning every day about the wide world of sharks. Such research allows us to properly educate others about the oceans’ apex predators and also to learn how we can help conserve them for future generations and healthier oceans to come. 

Texas State Aquarium Saddened Loss of Fish Species

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The Texas State Aquarium is saddened to report the loss of approximately 400 marine fish.  These fish inhabited several large habitats, including the Islands of Steel exhibit and the Flower Gardens exhibit. In an attempt to control a particularly difficult parasite that had proven resistant to other treatments, staff administered a different, commonly used drug. The fish in the affected exhibits had an adverse reaction to the medication. Staff members worked diligently throughout the night to save as much of the collection as possible, but considerable losses were sustained.

The majority of the Aquarium’s animal collection was not impacted. The Living Shores gallery, Nearshore gallery, Amazon, and Floating Phantoms, as well as a number of smaller exhibits, were not affected. None of the freshwater aquariums, and none of the touch tanks were impacted. In addition, none of the outdoor exhibits such as Tortuga Cay and Texas Trails were affected.  The loss represents about 13 percent of the Aquarium’s overall collection.

As a standard precaution, staff had tested the treatment on an individual smaller exhibit with no adverse reaction prior to administering it into the larger exhibit.

The Aquarium’s first priority is to focus on stabilizing the water in the affected exhibits. The Aquarium has sent water samples from affected exhibits to testing laboratories in hopes of a clear explanation for what caused the adverse reaction.

“This is a very sad day at the Texas State Aquarium,” remarked Aquarium Chief Marketing Officer Richard E. Glover, Jr. “We are working diligently to find out what caused the adverse reaction, and we will keep the public informed with any updates.”

Creepy Critter #3: Sand Tiger Shark

Hans, the sand tiger shark, in Islands of Steel
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Creepy Critter #3: Sand Tiger Shark

Dun, dun. Dun, dun, dun, dun, dun, dun. DUN, DUN, DUN, DUN, DUUUUN! Though no Great White, if seeing the protrusive teeth of a Sand Tiger Shark doesn’t start the JAWS theme song playing in your head, something is wrong. TSA Omni3

These decidedly ferocious-looking beasts boast a mouthful of terrifying teeth that are even visible when their mouths are shut. They can go through thousands of teeth in a lifetime, losing up to hundreds per year. And even with all those teeth, this predator still swallows its food whole!

Most Sand Tiger Sharks range in size from 6.5 up to 10.5 feet and they can weigh anywhere from 200 lbs to 350 lbs. And despite their intimidating size, they eat little, and can go for extensive periods without feeding.

The stealth hunter gets its name from its tendency to reside near shoreline habitats, and they are often seen trolling the ocean floor in the surf zone, very close to shore. They are found in warm or temperate waters throughout the world’s oceans, except the eastern Pacific. images

Something that sets the Sand Tiger Shark apart from other carnivorous fish is its ability to self adjust its buoyancy levels. The shark will break the surface of the ocean, gulp air, and then store the air in its stomach, allowing it to float motionless in the water. All the better to silently stalk prey… Hans

Though this species of shark has relatively plentiful numbers, they have a scarily low reproduction rate and are thus listen as threatened on the worldwide species list, meaning they are vulnerable to endangerment in the future.

Visit Hans, our very own Sand Tiger Shark, at the Islands of Steel exhibit this Saturday for Green Halloween and learn more spooky shark facts!