How I Learned to Love Swell Sharks

To present an alternative to the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week (and cult TV movies like Sharknado), Heal the Bay staff write about the marine animals they love so much. The general public has been fed terrifying misconceptions about these creatures, and our mission is to raise awareness about the unique and important role sharks play in our local ocean ecosystem.

The Santa Monica Pier Aquarium’s swell sharks were my gateway shark. Growing up on the East Coast and vacationing on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, my surfcasting father created a bit of shark paranoia in me. He spent hours knee deep in the waves, casting for blues, drum, striped bass and mackerel.  I was usually not far away, playing for hours in the warm Atlantic waves. On occasion Dad would yell: “Get out of the water, I see a shark circling back!”

I never actually saw a shark in those waves on the Outer Banks, but the fear of the unknown — and the unseen — coupled with my father’s obvious concern left me with an unhealthy, unfounded fear.

Fast-forward to 2001 (we won’t discuss how far forward), and I find myself working in an aquarium with the opportunity to spend some quality time with sharks.  Our five swell sharks, Cephaloscyllium ventriosm, aren’t the creatures of my nightmares, but learning interesting facts about their behavior specifically and more about sharks in general has turned my fear into fascination. Images of hammerheads, great whites and whale sharks now surround my desk.  I adamantly argue to whomever will listen for shark conservation measures, knowing the vital role they serve in the ocean.

And they are deserving of our respect as an ancient species – fossil deposits containing evidence of swell sharks in Southern California date them back at least 5.3 million years.  Another fun fact: swell sharks make up for their size (at maturity they reach a mere three feet in length) by swelling up to deter predators. The shark will twist its body into a U-shape, grab its tail fin and swallow seawater to double its size. 

For the last several years, the swell sharks at the Aquarium have been producing eggs, a sign the sharks are well adjusted and thriving.  Developing eggs are on display in our shark nursery.  What begins looking like a tiny tadpole grows in the egg casing for 10 to 12 months and becomes a fully developed juvenile shark – about six inches long and known as a pup. The pup breaks out, often first swimming upside down as it gets its bearings. Aquarium staff and volunteers love to point visitors to the shark nursery exhibit, providing running commentary on the journey from egg to pup.

So this shark fearing kid grew into an adult armed with enough information to truly appreciate and advocate on behalf of these magnificent creatures.

— Randi Parent
Heal the Bay’s Aquarium Outreach Manager

Anyone can contribute to the health and well being of the Aquarium’s swell sharks through our Aquadoption program. The adult sharks, developing eggs and pups are available for yearlong adoptions, along with seven other species on exhibit at the Aquarium.  

Watch one of our baby swell sharks do flips!