Sharks have been around for more than 400 million years — long before the dinosaurs — but we never get tired of them.
“They’re amazing and interesting to watch,” said Christian Martin, 8, of Rockville. “They come in different sizes, shapes and colors.”
It’s true. There are more than 450 types of sharks swimming in oceans today, including 100 or so along the East Coast and Gulf of Mexico. They range in size from the dwarf lantern shark, which is smaller than an adult’s hand, to the whale shark, which can be as big as a school bus. The mouth of an adult whale shark is nearly five feet wide!
A dozen shark jaws were the big attraction at the shark table set up for visiting day recently at the Silver Spring home of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA scientists study everything from the ocean up to the sun.
Two NOAA shark experts who grew up in Northern Virginia flew in from the Gulf Coast, where they work, for the all-day event. As small hands reached out to feel sharp shark teeth and hardened shark spine, marine biologists Trey Driggers and Kristin Hannan fielded the kids’ questions.
Holding a spine from a shortfin mako, they explained how scientists can tell a shark’s age from the circles in its spine. “It’s like counting the rings on a tree,” said Miles Levine, 11, of Takoma Park. “I didn’t know that.”
Silver Spring’s Dorothy Kelly, 8, was eager to see what a shark’s jaw felt like. “They’re not furry soft,” she said, “but they are kind of squishy.”
Miles has been fascinated by sharks since he saw a fisherman catch a baby bull shark about three years ago. His favorite is the megalodon, a 50-foot-long beast that became extinct 2½ million years ago but lives on in the imaginations of boys and girls.
Dorothy thinks sharks are cool. Miles finds them scary. “I’ve seen tons of movies” about them, he said.
That’s a problem for sharks, because television and movies often show them as man-eating monsters. Ask your parents about the movie “Jaws.” Some people who saw that 1975 Hollywood thriller probably still haven’t gone back into the water.
The book “Hungry, Hungry Sharks!” drew Hannan to them. She still has her copy. “It’s very tattered because I added my thoughts on every page,” she said. While the book is clear that sharks aren’t cruising to make you their dinner, the cover photo — which shows a shark with its mouth open wide — probably has kept some young readers awake at night thinking about that possibility.
In 2007 Hannan went to South Africa to cage-dive with great white sharks. She saw four, each about 12 feet long. “It was amazing,” she said. “I screamed a lot.” And she can’t wait to do it again.
Driggers was steered to his career path by the book “Sharks in Question.” On the last page was a question about how one becomes a shark biologist. “Whoa, you can do that?” Driggers asked himself.
Now he and Hannan spend several months each year on a research ship studying population trends, movement patterns and much more about their favorite marine animals.
“Both of us were little kids who were waaay into sharks,” Hannan said, “and it didn’t go away.”
Can you tell fact from fiction about sharks? Find the answers below the photo.
1. Sharks live only in the ocean.
2. Sharks are man-eaters.
3. Sharks can be trained.
4. You are more likely to be hurt by lightning than a shark.
1. False. Bull sharks, for example, are also found in rivers and lakes.
2. False. They eat plants, fish and other sea creatures.
3. True. Scientists have trained them to respond to feeding calls.
4. True. In 2014, just three people were killed by sharks worldwide. About 50 people in the United States die each year from lightning strikes.