Something in the Water
Diving with sand tiger sharks off the North Carolina coast
Story and Photographs by Todd Pusser
For nearly five minutes, I have been hovering motionlessly off the bow of the Hyde, some 60 feet below the ocean’s surface, staring out into the smoky, blue-gray water. Built in 1945 during the final days of World War II, the Hyde was one of the few ocean dredges outfitted with bullet-resistant steel and large guns. Once it was decommissioned, the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries intentionally sunk the ship 18 miles off the coast of Wilmington in 1988 to provide recreational opportunities for fisherman and scuba divers. The Hyde now rests upright on a vast, flat, sandy bottom and is a haven for marine life.
Exhaling into my regulator, I spy a large, dark shape, near the edge of my vision, approaching through a dense school of baitfish. On it swims, ever closer, revealing more of its distinctive features. I note the golden-brown sheen of its skin, sprinkled here and there with black spots. An arched back tapers from a wide dorsal fin down to a narrow snout. On the underside of that snout is a mouth filled with large exposed recurved teeth; an imposing maul that makes the species extremely popular attractions in zoos and aquariums.
Raising my camera up to my face mask, I frame the sand tiger shark in my viewfinder and press the shutter. The shark, 8 feet long, swims closer still, mouth slightly agape. Finally, an arm’s length away, the sand tiger veers to my right and swims slowly by, completely ignoring me. With a few gentle thrusts of its tail, the shark disappears into the blue.
Since the dawn of civilization, humans have been fascinated by sharks. Their likeness features on Phoenician pottery dating back to 3,000 B.C. Aristotle wrote about them, as did Pliny the Elder, of ancient Rome. Many cultures even viewed sharks as deities. However, fascination soon gave way to fear. A vase, discovered in 725 B.C. in Ischia, Italy, depicts a shark-like fish attacking a man. The fear of being eaten alive has persisted through the centuries, eventually culminating in the 1975 movie Jaws. So strong is this fear, it is without parallel, even in a world filled with nuclear weapons and mass shootings.
Sharks have been in existence for a very long time, swimming ocean waters some 200 million years before the dinosaurs walked the Earth. Over 540 species of sharks are currently recognized by scientists. With each passing year, new species are continually being described.
In his 2003 book Sharks, Rays, and Skates of the Carolinas, the late marine biologist Frank Schwartz of the University of North Carolina Marine Sciences Institute, in Morehead City, documented 56 species of sharks swimming our state’s waters. Of the sand tiger shark, he wrote, “Common year-round in the Carolinas, especially July-November in shallow shelf waters.” Their presence in the shallow waters off North Carolina has made the state a mecca for recreational scuba divers and underwater photographers. Believe it or not, people willing to pay good money, flock here from all over the world for the chance to swim with these predators in the wild. North Carolina is one of just a handful of spots anywhere on the planet where divers can safely observe large sharks in their natural environment without the need for metal cages or the use of bait in the water.
Despite their docile demeanor, sand tiger sharks, like all large predators, are capable of inflicting a serious bite, and should be treated with respect. Consider, as well, an interesting tidbit about their unusual reproductive biology. Female sand tiger sharks possess two uteri. Within each of these uteri, the largest embryo consumes all its siblings and any unfertilized eggs that the female produces. Talk about sibling rivalry. With no competition for food, the embryos grow to a large size for the duration of their mother’s 10-month pregnancy. Born headfirst, the pair are over a meter in length (among the largest of all sharks at birth) and come equipped with a mouth of fully functional teeth.
With air running low in my scuba tank, I swim over to the anchor line and begin my slow ascent toward the dive boat drifting overhead. Glancing down, I count at least 20 large sand tigers circling the Hyde, a testament that the moratorium on fishing for large shark species within United States waters is working. Due to the fact that female sand tiger sharks only give birth to two pups at a time, every three years, the species is especially vulnerable to overfishing.
Off to my side, a sand tiger shark, high up in the water column, turns and slowly heads in my direction. The shark casts a curious eye as it swims by just a few feet away. This time, instead of raising my camera, I stop my ascent, and simply watch, fully enjoying the moment. PS
Naturalist and photographer Todd Pusser grew up in Eagle Springs. He works to document the extraordinary diversity of life both near and far. His images can be found at www.ToddPusser.com.