Sharks are being celebrated during July

Perhaps it is the iconic silhouette and familiar body shape, or possibly it is the impressive mouth full of constantly regenerating teeth, but for many, the sight of a shark whether in person or in photos can cause one’s heart to skip a beat.

These incredible creatures, both apex predator and scavenger, are so well adapted to their environment that they often rule the ocean environment in which they live. What is it about a shark that elicits such a wide range of emotions from us humans?

As we take a closer look at sharks and, more specifically, those that traverse the waters of Hawaii, we find much to be in awe about. One of the first distinguishing factors that separates sharks from other fish is their light, fast design.

Instead of being a bony fish, they are cartilaginous. That is, they don’t have a single solid bone in their bodies – rather, their internal support structure is made up of a type of cartilage that is very similar to the cartilage you would find in your ear or the tip of your nose. This design allows the shark to live in the pelagic (or open) zones of the deep ocean quite comfortably, floating effortlessly in the water column without the aid of a swim bladder that bony fishes must have in order to sink or swim.

As mentioned before, sharks have an impressive mouth full of razor-sharp teeth – but in reality, they are literally covered in teeth. These dermal denticles are tiny, almost microscopic teeth that cover the shark’s entire body. The denticles contribute to the streamlined surface of the shark’s body, allowing it to move smoothly and quickly through the water while also providing protection for their skin.

They also have a one-way grain to their skin. So, if one were to run his or her hand across a shark’s skin in the opposite direction, it would feel rough, almost sandpaperlike. In times past, shark skin was used by Hawaiians for just that purpose.

While sharks are indeed apex predators (those at the top of the food chain), they also serve a vital role in the world’s oceans by removing sick, injured or dying animals, helping to keep the oceans clean and the populations healthy.

Finally, when we ponder the emotions that many feel with regard to sharks – awe, sometimes fear and, in many instances in the Hawaiian Islands, respect – it often can be difficult to separate fact from fiction.

The truth is, sharks are everywhere, and considering how many thousands of humans enter into the water for various activities, it is clear that any negative interactions between sharks and humans are rare anomalies. Divers encounter sharks daily and are almost entirely ignored, rarely even getting a curious glance.

Poor ocean conditions and mistaken identity can lead to unfortunate encounters, but as humans enter into the shark’s domain, we can exercise ocean wisdom by avoiding dawn and dusk forays and staying out of the ocean in murky conditions.

The more we learn about sharks, the greater our appreciation and understanding will be so that we can respect their rightful place in nature.

July is part of the Maui Ocean Center’s annual “Shark-tacular” celebration.

* Colleen Foster is the director of education at the Maui Ocean Center. “Ka Mo’olelo Moana,” or “The Ocean Story,” is a monthly column submitted by the Maui Ocean Center. The center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily in Maalaea. For more information, call 270-7000.