The Palegic tank at an aquarium is a deep-water tank that typically houses larger species of shark. At the aquarium in Mossel Bay, the palegic tank is home to Monica, a 1.5-meter smooth hound shark.
The tank is roughly the size of a small school bus and has large viewing windows that let the public look in on the magnificent specimen that is Monica.
When feeding sharks, just dropping a chunk of fish in the top of the tank is usually enough. They’ll swim directly to it and chomp it up. But believe it or not, there are times when a shark just refuses to eat and Monica’s no exception. If it goes on for several days, we become concerned for the health of the animal.
That’s when we have to spoon-feed them.
There are a couple of issues with that: 1. I have to put my entire body in very close proximity to a wild-caught shark and other big fish in a pretty small space. 2. Sharks love cold water! It takes a few minutes for my swim-suited and snorkeled self to get used to the cold before I even remember that there’s a predator in the water with me.
More often than not, it’s clear that the shark is physically fine. Maybe it just didn’t have an appetite at the time of the feeding, or it had its food stolen by some of the large deep-water fish that also call the Palegic tank home.
But Monica’s got to eat, so I drop into the tank with a chunk of fish in my hand and start to swim as well as my frozen body allows, as close to the shark as I can, to offer up a tasty morsel.
This is a tough task because sharks are usually pretty afraid of people and getting Monica comfortable enough for me to get close always takes time. Sometimes I have to deal with the other big fish that try to rudely snap the food out of my hand when I’m not paying attention. But after several minutes with the shark and a sharp eye on the neighboring fish, Monica sucks the fish straight out of my hand. Success!
Then there’s the clean-up. A lot of day-to-day care goes into a large shark tank and it’s my good fortune to be the one assigned to clean it at least once a week.
Luckily, Monica doesn’t seem very interested in me when I’m cleaning. This is a good thing because I can never hold my breath for more than about 20 seconds at a time, so you can imagine how long it takes to fully clean the tank. And did I mention sharks love cold water?
Here’s the routine: I swim down to each of the windows and wiped them clean, then comb the bottom for any chunks of uneaten fish or fish carcasses.
Sometimes I rearrange the rocks in the tank for a new aesthetic or to provide a better view for the public. And that’s about it.
If you ever get a chance to be in the water with a shark, I highly suggest you take it. Every part of their anatomy is streamlined for speed and as they swim by, I get the sense of highly controlled power and dexterity. I’ve never enjoyed cleaning something so much as Monica’s tank.
Taylor Martin is an intern at Oceans Research Institute, one of the leading marine wildlife and oceanographic research institutes in the world, in Mossel Bay, South Africa. He’s there to study some of the largest and most dangerous creatures to swim our oceans: Great White Sharks.
Photo: Screen shot, The Shark Lab, Mossel Bay, S.A.
Credit: Courtesy of The Shark Lab