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Monday, August 01, 2011


Some people count down the days to their birthdays. Others religiously check off the calendar to Christmas. Some however, count down the days to an event so epic that one day can’t encapsulate it. It is an annual occurrence so awesome that a whole week is devoted to it. A week rife with the splendor of nature, the mystery of the open ocean, and the raw power of the world’s apex predators. We can stop counting down because the week is finally upon us. Shark Week is here.


Mako shark swiming shallow in local waters. Photo/Joe Romeiro

Discovery Channel’s Shark Week has taken on a cult following of epic proportions. According to Shark Week’s Facebook, more than 222,000 people have “liked” their page. And what’s not to like? Sharks are fascinating creatures with the power to inspire respect and to terrify.

RI's Shark Specialist

To get Rhode Islanders even more excited about this week of grand proportions, GoLocalProv spoke with Dr. Brad Wetherbee, one of Rhode Island’s premier shark specialists. Wetherbee teaches in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Rhode Island, specializing in the ecology and distribution of marine fishes, most notably sharks. We talked with Dr. Wetherbee about sharks in Rhode Island and the conversation got us even more excited for this week… if that was even possible.

What's swimming off the Rhode Island coast?

Plenty, it turns out, according to Wetherbee. “Sand tiger sharks, sandbar sharks, smooth dogfish, spiny dogfish, and [great] white sharks," populate our waters, he says. "And a little farther offshore there are blue sharks, mako sharks, thresher sharks and basking sharks.” According to Wetherbee, these sharks also have fairly wide distributions all along the eastern seaboard and other countries around the world. The most common in our waters: spiny dogfish and

URI's Brad Weatherbee counts a tiger shark's stripes

smooth dogfish. Offshore, look for blue sharks. However, Wetherbee adds, “Compared to many East Coast states sharks [here] aren't that numerous.”

Big shark alert

Wetherbee says that the biggest shark in Rhode Island waters is the Basking Shark, which can reach lengths of 45 feet - which is bigger than a school bus. However, don't fret about these giant fish as they are harmless filter feeders and have no interest in humans.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Wetherbee says that “[great] white sharks are the most dangerous sharks in Rhode Island waters, but they are not very common.” In fact, in the past 340 years, there has only been one shark attack in Rhode Island waters. “You're going to drown or get hit by a car crossing the street to the beach before you get bitten by a shark in Rhode Island,” he says.

Fear and shark fishing

Yet, the fear of shark attacks has driven an industry where shark fishing is prevalent, and the negative effects on the shark population are showing. “Sharks have life history characteristics that make them vulnerable to overfishing and many shark populations around the world (and US) have been overfished, are in trouble and need to be conserved," he says. "Sharks kill 10-15 people around the world in a typical year, but people kill as many as 70 million sharks.”

So, during Shark Week 2011, let's appreciate the majestic beauty of these animals and the awesomeness of their marine life cycle. “The most rewarding thing about working with sharks for me is appreciating their design and seeing how remarkably suited they are to their life in the ocean," Wetherbee says.  "There are a number of unique aspects of their biology, but from their sensory biology and biochemistry to their feeding, digestion, movements and behavior they continue to fascinate.”

You got that right. Happy Shark Week.

Tomorrow: Shark attacks in RI and nearby waters.

Psych up with this video on shark attacks, from the Discovery Channel:

Shark photo: Joe Romeiro

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