They may look a bit frightening, but sharks are among the most amazing creatures on the planet. There are currently more than 500 species of sharks, and in honor of International Shark Awareness Day, we decided to share some fascinating facts about common shark species and where you may spot them.
Most sharks use their large pectoral fins on the sides of their bodies for lift, like aircraft wings, while the dorsal fin on a shark’s back helps with quick turns, like the rudder on a boat. However, the hammerhead’s dorsal fin is longer than its pectoral fins, so if they tilt to the side, their “wingspan” actually increases, allowing them to expend 10 percent less energy than when swimming upright. They may spend up to 90 percent of their time swimming at angles between 50 and 75 degrees. On our Galápagos journey, you may be lucky enough to see a school of scalloped hammerhead sharks as they glide with the currents.
Blacktip Reef Shark
Female blacktip sharks figured out a way to breed without a male (called parthenogenesis), by fertilizing her own egg. They are one of only a few shark species known to reproduce asexually. Having offspring with less genetic diversity isn’t ideal, but it might be a last-ditch attempt at reproduction in the absence of males. Blacktips can be found in most tropical waters, including our sea kayaking and snorkeling trip in Palau.
Wobbegongs, aka “Carpet Sharks”
New research suggests that spotted wobbegongs aggregate in social groups, which, if true, would be the first documented case of a non-random grouping of sharks. Unfortunately, fishing for wobbegong meat and skin may selectively remove important members of social networks, with unknown consequences for the stability of their aggregations and broader population genetics. These species are the masters of disguise, and if you’re lucky enough, you may see one on our Raja Ampat snorkeling expedition.
When working with trained partners, lemon sharks can learn from each other’s behavior to complete tasks more quickly and successfully—the first documented case of social learning in any cartilaginous fish. These sharks are the most researched and documented of any shark species and are very docile creatures. If you join our Baja: Exploring the Sea of Cortez journey, be on the lookout for these and gray whales.
Okay, so it’s not research, but we can still learn a lot from British diver John Craig who was accompanied by a 13-foot tiger shark while on a 5 mile swim in western Australia. As great white shark activity in the area had been high, it’s thought that the tiger shark may have been escorting Craig and steering him back to shore. Tiger sharks are one of the ocean’s most voracious predators, eating everything from birds to license plates, yet their status as the second most dangerous shark species next to the great white has earned them a bad reputation. What Craig and others, including myself, discovered swimming with tiger sharks is that these exquisite and ancient evolutionary masterpieces have more to fear from us than we do from them. Unfortunately, tiger sharks make the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List of Threatened Species, as they’re targeted in a number of commercial fisheries for meat, skin, and fins. Its liver is also sought after as it contains high levels of vitamin A, which is processed into vitamin oil. Luckily, a number of shark sanctuaries have been established in the Pacific (including Palau and French Polynesia), Indian Ocean (including Raja Ampat), and the Caribbean to help protect this amazing creature.
Whether you come across these or any other shark species on your travels, remember that ocean health depends on thriving shark populations. As apex predators, sharks play an important role in all oceanic ecosystems by controlling the species below them in the food chain and maintaining species diversity. The loss of sharks due to overfishing, trophy hunting, and poor fishing practices has significantly contributed to the decline in coral reefs, seagrass beds, and commercial fisheries worldwide. To protect sharks from overfishing, purchase fish and fish products caught using sustainable methods, donate to science and conservation initiatives, promote science-based legislation, volunteer, and most of all, work to educate the next generation about the importance of these majestic animals.
—Text by WT staff, Jenny Gowan. Be sure to check out our blog post on whales too!