Working at an aquarium means I get to dive with sharks every day and one of my particular favourites is a big, three metre long imposing grey nurse shark called Mitchell. Mitchell is one of a kind… literally. One grey nurse shark amongst Hammerheads, Sandbars, Leopards and Bamboo sharks. But this particular grey nurse shark rules the tank; he’s definitely the boss – from the fish all the way through to the humans! But he’s not overbearing or difficult to deal with.
He comes with the very impressive shark Latin name of Carcharias taurus – a name to match his impressive set of teeth. He’s brown on top and white underneath so if you’re either under or over him he blends into the background. He looks mean but really he’s nothing more than a big pussy cat.
Sharks only eat when they’re hungry and Mitchell is no exception. What is surprising is that this big three metre long shark will eat only one fish a couple of times a week. When we dive in the tank we offer him food everyday but it’s entirely up to him whether he eats or not. For a big shark with a big set of impressive teeth, he is also surprisingly polite when he decides he’s hungry. He’ll meander over slowly and turn and face you and wait until you’re ready. Grey nurse sharks can ‘throw’ their jaws out about 10 centimetres from their normal resting place which is a pretty impressive sight if ever you get to witness it. So we feed Mitchell using a feed pole… just in case.
Mitchell spends a lot of his time sleeping but he’s perfected the art of sleeping at work so well, most people wouldn’t know. It’s hard to pick since he can’t close his eyes but the giveaway sign is his lack of movement. He get’s very, very slow, in fact so slow he’s barely moving; an occasional small flick of his fin to change direction is often the only discernible movement. Grey Nurse sharks ‘swallow’ air from the surface and hold it in their stomachs for buoyancy control. This means they can hang virtually motionless in the water column and Mitchell does it amazingly well… I wish I had such perfect buoyancy control.
Unfortunately, these sharks have been hunted almost to extinction… mostly because they look pretty ferocious and people thought they were man eaters. Along the east coast of Australia it’s estimated there are less than 1000 individual animals left. In 1984 the Grey Nurse shark received the rather unfortunate distinction of being the first shark in the world to become a protected species. Unfortunately since then, the east coast shark population has been decimated and is now a ‘critically endangered’ species, so I think Mitchell’s chance of ever getting a girlfriend are slim to say the least.
So we take good care of Mitchell. Yes one reason is because his species is facing extinction but the other is because he’s such a nice shark, does his thing well and without fuss and you can’t help but like him.
Jane Mitchell is a scuba diving instructor who works at a public aquarium looking after endangered sharks for her day job. She loves introducing people to the joys that can be found underwater and discovering everything she can about shipwrecks and sharks.