Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, June 15, 1998

Traveling shark show
offers helpful, fair insight

When the 50th State Fair opened last month, it advertised a traveling shark show from Florida. Several nurse and lemon sharks were being displayed in a 7,000-gallon tank, about the size of a shipping container.

Animal-rights activists in Hawaii were not amused. They don't like seeing animals hauled from fair to fair, a spokeswoman said in a May news story. In fact, Animal Rights Hawaii still has a suit against the operator of a diving-donkey show featured at last year's fair.

Knowing all this gave me some qualms about visiting the fair's sharks. I have no problem with displaying fish in tanks, but diving donkeys? The whole thing hinted of cruelty and I feared the ghosts of carnivals past.

I was in for a pleasant surprise. The sharks in question looked well cared for and had signs posted on their tank about their species and life history. An informative video played continually.

I had to wait in the back of a three-person-deep crowd to get to the front. It was worth the wait. Two lemon sharks, about 3 or 4 feet long, cruised back and forth in the tank, while one lemon and two nurse sharks rested on the bottom. Then, just as I got up to the tank, a black-and-white remora detached itself from one swimming shark and switched to the other. It was a memorable moment.

A remora, sometimes called a suckerfish, is a narrow fish, 1 to 3 feet long, with a suction cup on top of its head. The remora uses this sucker to attach itself to the undersides of sharks, sea turtles, marine mammals, boats and occasionally even divers.

Once the hitchhiking remora gets a grip, it nestles under its host for a free ride and free food in the form of scraps spilled from the host's mouth.

I was thrilled to watch the remora switching back and forth from shark to shark. When I talked to shark-show manager Olaf Vos about this, I learned that when remoras do this, they are usually in trouble.

"When I catch a remora with its own shark, everything is fine," Vos said. "But if I catch them separately and put them together, the remora doesn't belong to one shark. Eventually one of the sharks eats it."

And the show? Every few hours, a diver gets in the tank with the sharks and swims around.

"That's it?" I asked.

"Yes. That's our point. Sharks aren't the vicious killers most people think they are."

You won't find a lemon shark in Hawaiian waters, but you might see one in the Caribbean, the South Pacific or around Australia. There, these shy 10-foot-long sharks eat bottom fish and rays.

Nurse sharks don't live in Hawaii either, but if you spot one in the Caribbean, you'll recognize it. Nurse sharks have distinct broad heads and bear two prominent whiskers, called barbels, on their snouts. These whiskers are sense organs that help the fish find food. Nurse sharks rest on the ocean floor, eating whatever they can find on the bottom.

Neither of these species is the least bit interested in people.

Both lemon and nurse sharks travel well, a good thing since they came by truck from Florida to California, then by ship to Hawaii. This week, they are returning by the same route to their native Florida. There, Vos will release the sharks to the wild, then catch new ones for the next show.

In this era of depleted fisheries, where people kill sharks for their fins only, or for no reason at all, these traveling fair folks are a breath of fresh air. Not only are they making a living from sharks without hurting them, they're teaching some conservation biology as well.

I don't know about diving donkeys, but having this shark show at our fair was a good idea.

Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears Mondays in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at honu@aloha.net.

E-mail to City Desk

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