I touched a shark
Monday 23rd July 2012
I touched a shark
Danielle with a Port Jackson Shark

I touched a shark! Yep a real, living, breathing shark.  For the record, it wasn’t a Great White, but rather a Port Jackson Shark, which is considered harmless to humans, but it was a shark none the less.

First impressions ... that it was a ball of muscle  (I may have squealed like a girl when it wriggled and showed off its strength),  but it was also really quite placid, or as Nathan Bass an honours student from Macquarie University who’s leading some research on these guys down at Jervis Bay described them: “A rather heavy sack of potatoes.”  Then when my hand was under the shark, he casually mentioned that although they’re classified as harmless, their blunt teeth could easily crush your arm.  Thanks Nathan!

Just why was I sitting in a boat in the middle of Jervis Bay touching a potentially bone crushing shark?  Well, apart from Nathan’s trivia about their jaw power, we actually don’t know too much about these sharks.

So, because Taronga Zoo believes in being ‘for the wild’, we joined forces with Macquarie University to find out more.

Intriguingly, despite many people thinking that sharks are solitary creatures, this type of shark appears to have social networks. No, they’re not all on Facebook, tweeting and texting each other, but they do seem to hang out. Who they hang out with, why they choose to socialise, when and how often is largely unknown.

To find out more about this species, Nathan and Dr. Jo Wiszniewski from Taronga’s Conservation and Research centre, as well as a raft of volunteers and scientists from Macquarie University, spent a week tagging 20 Port Jackson Sharks with acoustic receivers to record and track the animals’ interactions and movements.

The project also involved the researchers scuba diving, doing underwater surveys and setting up acoustic listening stations in the Jervis Bay Marine Park to help unlock some of the secret society of these sharks. As I watched them diving, I have to say it was humbling to acknowledge that much of the underwater world is still a mystery.

 

Although I was only there for the day, the project will run for the next three months. Already we know that the sharks seem to enjoy spending time together when they’re resting and seem to have favourite chill-out areas, with more than 30 sharks recorded in one area alone.

Hopefully after the scientists crunch all the data we’ll know if they hang-out with family members, sharks of the opposite sex for courting reasons, or if in a weird shark way they develop relationships and choose to spend time with favoured individuals.

So why do this research? The mere mention of the word ‘shark’ evokes a whole range of preconceived ideas and they’re often wrongly maligned as man-eating monsters, but they seldom attack humans. If you chat to Nathan and Jo, they will tell you how much they love sharks, but sadly, shark populations are being rapidly depleted by overfishing and other human activities.

Ultimately, knowledge is power, and if we know how, why and when the sharks use their marine environment we can all work on sharing the underwater world.

Danielle McGill, Taronga Media Relations Officer