The Sand Tiger Shark: Wreck Denizen
All content copyrighted©Mike Gerken; Evolution Underwater Imaging LLC
Carcharias taurus or the Wreck Denizen of North Carolina. ©Mike Gerken
Sand Tiger Shark As an underwater photographer who loves sharks, I’m frequently asked by fellow divers, “what is your favorite shark?” My answer unequivocally is, the sand tiger shark or Carcharias taurus, “Wreck Denizen of North Carolina”. I say so not necessarily because the sand tiger is the fastest of sharks, such as the mako or as formidable such as the great white or even as handsome as say the silver tip. No, my love affair with the sand tiger was more of a process of association.
I began diving the wrecks of the Outer Banks of North Carolina recreationally in the late 90’s and found myself on numerous dives surrounded by these lethargic, but sinister looking sharks that range in size from a modest 4 feet to a whopping 10. Its rows of crooked gnarly teeth jutting from its jaw reminded me more of a Hollywood villain than hero. I returned to North Carolina in 2009 to work as a captain at Olympus Dive Center located in Morehead City. In total, I spent 7 seasons conducting hundreds of wreck dives up to 40 miles off the Carolina coast in to the Atlantic Ocean. Many of these dives were in the company of sand tiger sharks. At times when aggregations were the strongest, I had counted well over 50-75 sharks and on a few occasions their numbers were over 100! Nowadays, spotting at least one sand tiger shark on most wrecks is nearly guaranteed.
Schooling Sand TigersOn rare occasions, schools of sand tigers can be seen on the wrecks in large numbers as depicted in this image. With each sand tiger shark encounter, I gradually developed an interest in this docile and vastly misunderstood animal. The sand tigers behaviors, unlike many shark species, is fairly easy to observe in their natural habitat. Most other sharks, such as tiger sharks or bulls require artificial feeding in order for prolonged encounters with these species to take place. Because of this, shark feeds have become a popular tourist attraction all over the world such as in the Bahamas, Fiji, and Mexico. The theory is, where there is blood in the water there will be sharks. Where there are sharks there will be divers willing to shell out good money for a close up experience with these amazing creatures. The sand tiger shark on the other hand requires no blood in the water to attract. They tend to dwell in the same rock ledge or wreck site for days if not months on end and do not startle easy and appear rather comfortable in the presence of divers. This allows for very close observation for prolonged periods of time without altering the sharks behavior.
San Tiger posing inside the wreck of the Aeolus. Any diver can get close to a sand tiger or a group of sand tigers. All that is required is calm and subtle approach underwater. Heavy breathing, excessive limb movement and/or moving directly towards them will likely cause the sand tiger to veer away from the diver at a slow, but steady pace. To view the shark, it is best to swim parallel to it or do not swim at all. Since the sharks tend to travel up and down or around a wreck over and over again, one need only hover in the water motionless and it is only a matter of time before a shark will swim within 10 feet or even arms reach of you. A very stealthy diver may even have to get out of the way of an approaching shark to avoid contact. However, touching these sharks is not recommended. Not because there is a threat of an attack, but you will likely scare the daylights out of them. When these sharks startle, they will turn tail in a flash and dart off at high-speed in the opposite direction in which they came leaving a wall of displaced water in their wake. When this happens, as a diver, it is best to put your arm up to protect your face from the thrashing tail and concussion of water coming at you to prevent your mask from being knocked off. Otherwise, to get bitten by one of these sharks is rare and highly unlikely event unless you provoke the animal by grabbing it or if you were carrying dead fish on your person. With that said, common sense would dictate, do not try to ride these sharks or spear fish in their presence.
This loan sand tiger is cruising the wreck of the USCG Cutter Spar. As a photographer, the sand tiger, by far is my favorite subject. Anyone spending a few moments on my web site will learn that quickly enough. Photographing a sand tiger stand-alone is interesting and exciting in itself, but when you combine a sand tiger with a stunning and historic shipwreck as a backdrop, the photo and a story really comes to life. Also, due to the sand tigers easy-going disposition, they make for great models. Once you come to understand their behavior, setting up a shot becomes fairly easy when the conditions are conducive. Most often, I find it easier to photograph sand tigers compared to humans. Unlike divers I can anticipate the action of a shark more than I can one of my models. The best part is sand tigers will work for free and do not complain about it.
A sand tiger shark swimming along the wreck of the U352. There is some scientific research being conducted on sand tiger sharks today, but mostly on coastal sharks. However, little to no research is being conducted on the sand tigers that are found specifically on the offshore shipwrecks of North Carolina. It is my hope in the near future that more funds and scientific knowledge be utilized to better understand this enigmatic species of shark. The wreck denizen of North Carolina is much more than a tourist attraction. They are vital apex predators that are crucial in balancing the marine ecosystem and in turn protecting fish food stocks that are vital to us humans.
Visit this link for more of Mike's sand tiger shark photography.
If you would like to see sand tiger sharks up close and personal contact Olympus Dive Center for information on how to dive the wrecks of North Carolina.
Sand Tiger Facts
•They practice intrauterine cannibalism. This is when one shark embryo will devour the sibling embryo(s) whilst still inside the host mother. How gruesome.
•They range from as far north as Delaware to northern Florida.
•They can be also found off the east coast of South Africa, where they are known as ragged tooth sharks, as well as off the east coast of Australia, where they are known as grey nurse sharks.
•They have been found as deep as 600 feet.
•Males will bite and latch on to the pectoral fin of the female during mating producing scars.
•For reasons not known sand tigers by the dozens on rare occasions will hover in mid water swimming in the same direction in to the current.
•They are the only species known to control their buoyancy by gulping air at the surface.
•They are a federally protected shark species in the United States. It is illegal to land or kill a sand tiger.
•It is not known why sand tigers aggregate around wrecks. It is theorized they are there for the abundant food sources that can be found there.
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