By Dave Sigworth, publicist of The Maritime Aquarium
The way that many people view Long Island Sound as somehow being disconnected or separate from the Atlantic Ocean ecosystem is most apparent when they discover what lives in the Sound.
Seals in the winter? “Wow!” Dolphins sometimes and even the occasional whale? “Holy cow!” And sharks!? “No way!”
Indeed, much of the Atlantic’s coastal marine population lives in the Sound as well, or at least visits from time to time. And that includes your apex predators, the sharks.
So, in honor of “Shark Week” kicking off Sunday (and The Maritime Aquarium sponsoring it on Cablevision), let’s talk about sharks in Long Island Sound. And we’ll start with the big question: are there great white sharks in Long Island Sound? Well, there are an increasing number of great whites off Cape Cod (drawn there by an increase in the population of gray seals, one of the great white’s favorite foods). A 10-foot great white turned up a couple summers ago in a fish trap off Black Point, R.I. From there, it wouldn’t be far to swim through the Sound’s eastern opening (called the Race, off New London). So it’s not unreasonable to think that great whites visit.
Anecdotal sightings also abound of thresher, blue, mako and even hammerhead sharks in the Sound, especially in the eastern end.
But those are just the guests. Four species of sharks are considered to be common in (or native to) the Sound:
• Growing to lengths of up to 10 feet, sand tiger sharks (Carcharias taurus) are the largest native sharks. They’re also the featured shark species in The Maritime Aquarium’s “Ocean Beyond the Sound” exhibit (a.k.a. our big “shark tank”). Sand tigers have several identifying characteristics. The two dorsal fins are close in size. (On most sharks, the front dorsal fin is larger.) Also, the narrow teeth of a sand tiger shark are visible all the time, not just when it bites. In many other species, such as reef and blue sharks, the teeth are somewhat out of view until the shark extends its jaws to bite.
• Brown sharks (Carcharhinus plumbeus) are also called sandbar sharks. They can grow to about 8 feet long. They’re recognizable by their especially pronounced front dorsal fin and short rounded snout.
• Smooth dogfish sharks (Mustelus canis) are often called “sand sharks.” (This can cause confusion, when we also have sand tiger sharks and sandbar sharks.) Smooth dogfish may be the most common shark on the Atlantic coast. It’s one of the Sound’s two species of dogfish sharks – both are thin and sleek, with eyes that are high on the head and seem disproportionally large. (Dogfish are called dogfish because they often swim and aggressively hunt in large packs.) Growing up to 5 feet long, they’re bottom scavengers that tend to stay closer to shore.
• Spiny dogfish sharks (Squalus acanthias) have a sharp spine in front of each dorsal fin that help to deter predators. The spines aren’t venomous but are often coated with bacteria-rich mucus, so you do not want to get pricked. By several accounts, spiny dogfish are the world’s most abundant, most studied and longest-lived shark, known to reach 40 years of age. They grow up to 4 feet long.
Should you worry that there are sharks out there? Probably not. As we noted in our July 26 blog, the most-recent shark attack in Connecticut waters was in 1960.