The Sharks of Hatteras

 

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When you jump off our dive boat in Hatteras there is really no way to know in advance just what sea life you are going to encounter.  The influence of the two major currents of the North Atlantic, the Labrador and the Gulf Stream, bring us a wide variety of sea life from small tropical fish to large pelagic species.  Many of these large fish are sharks and that is what many divers come to Hatteras to see.

Just what type of shark you might encounter on any particular dive is really never known in advance.  Our most common specie, the Sand Tiger (Carcharias Taurus), is often present.  However, the same dive site may have none one day and many hundreds the next.  Many other species may be commonly seen and some are only rarely sighted while diving.   

The sharks we see are listed here in the general order of the most common to the rarely seen.  

Sand Tiger Shark - (Carcharias taurus)

The Sand Tiger is the most common shark seen when diving the Hatteras area.  It may congregate on the wreck sites in extremely large numbers during the summer season.  You may not see any at a wreck site, then you may find hundreds of them there the next time you dive the same site.  They are often more plentiful at the deeper wrecks sites, but may be in large numbers on an inshore shallow site as well.    At the Proteus wreck I have experienced dives when I could see at least a hundred of these sharks in any direction.  On several occasions at the end of the dive I have pulled the anchor and drifted underwater with the current for over 1/4 mile and found there were just as many sharks away from the wreck as were seen at the wreck site.   The Sand Tiger is also known to patrol the beach in the area just beyond the breakers and was often caught by persons shark fishing from the beach when that was a popular activity.  

Sandtiger Shark photo by Mike Weiss

Large Sandtiger photo courtesy of Diver Michael Weiss

The Sand Tiger is a world wide specie and is known as the Ragged Tooth Shark off Africa and the Grey Nurse off Australia.  Here off the East Coast of the US, they grow to be 10 to 12 feet in length and are a very large full bodied shark.  The males tend to be smaller and less bulky than the females, which can grow to be 10 to 12 feet and very large in girth.  They are know to be live bearers of usually two pups and along the US coast the main puping grounds are believed to be the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays with the pups remaining in these waters until about 3 to 4 feet in length.  

The Sand Tiger is considered by most divers to be a docile and harmless shark.  However, this is a misconception and these sharks should be given the respect any apex predator deserves.  Though most of the time the Sand Tiger is seen moving slowly and appears to be almost lazy, this is just their daytime "energy conservation mode".  When there are feeding opportunities, this shark moves extremely rapidly and is tenacious in obtaining it's meal.  Having observed their feeding activity as well as providing them more than one meal when I have been spearfishing, I have respect for these sharks and suggest that other divers do likewise.

Sandtiger shark has lots of pointed teeth.  Photo by Jim Willis

 

Sandtiger Shark swims past Captian Dave

A sandtiger swims past Capt Dave on the Dixie Arrow

Sandtiger at the Proteus stern - Photo by Wade Pryor

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sandtiger at the Proteus wreck is courtesy of Diver Wade Pryor

Nurse Shark - (Ginglymostoma cirratum)Captain Dave Swims with a Nurse Shark

The Nurse shark is most often seen at the wreck sites in the area of the Diamond Shoals, but it is an occasional visitor at the deeper southern sites as well.  You will most often encounter the Nurse shark tucked under or beside a piece of the wreck at the sand level where it is resting and waiting for dark when it feeds.  They can reach lengths of up to 10 feet, we see them mainly in the 5 to 8 foot range.  The Nurse as a species are known to congregate during their daytime naps, but sightings of more than one Nurse at a time are not that common in our diving area. 

 

 

Bull Shark - (Carcharhinus leucas)

When the average person thinks about the shape of a shark, the Bull Shark is probably pretty close to what they would describe.  Bull Sharks have the "typical" shark look with a stiff fairly prominent dorsal fin that is almost triangular in appearance and a broad stocky body.  Their pectoral fins are about twice the length of the dorsal and appear to be stick stiffly out from the body.  Their swimming motion is distinct from many of the other sharks you may see in Hatteras and looks like it originates from the shoulder area and they move along very quickly with little effort and this gives the impression of a "shark on a mission".

When you see the Bull Shark on the wreck site they will often be continually moving almost as if constantly on patrol.  I have watched them swim the perimeter of the wreck site the Bull Shark photographed by Joe Poe on a NC Wreck site. entire time I was making a dive and never once did they break the pace.  They have often swam close to me making just one inspection pass then continue on their patrol.  I have also seen them rise up from below when I was doing a deco under the boat, look me over, then just fade back down to the depths.  Perhaps a bit disconcerting, but once they take a look they have always gone on their way.  

World-wide, the Bull Shark is known by a variety of different names depending upon the location.  It has a fairly bad reputation as a dangerous shark throughout most of it's range and this specie was identified as responsible for a fatal attack on the Hatteras beach in 2001.  We have not had any direct problems with the Bull Shark, but if they are around on the dive site I do not do any spear fishing and they seem to be ok with that.

Diver Joe Poe took the photo displayed here while shipwreck diving in the waters off Hatteras.

 

Lemon Shark - (Negaprion brevirostris)

The Lemon Shark gets the name from the color of the under belly, which when diving at depth with the shark is not always immediately apparent other than that you notice the underside is distinctly lighter in color than the top of the shark.  We do not always see the Lemons on the wreck sites, but when we do they are often in pairs or small groups of three or four sharks.  The ones that we have seen usually range in size of up to approximately 7 to 8 feet.  At first glace they may seem to be the more common Sandtiger, but they do have some very distinct features that differentiate the two species.  Compared to the Sandtigers, the Lemons have much sleeker pectoral fins and the two dorsal fins are of almost the same size.  They always appear to me to be much more active swimmers than the Sandtigers and tend to move more quickly.   They also appear to be inquisitive of the divers and will make one or two passes before swimming off.   They are usually seen on the moderate depth dives and not often at the deeper offshore sites.

Dusky Shark - (Carcharhinus obscurus)

The Dusky shark is not seen in great numbers or with consistent frequency but enough to know this specie is here is some numbers.  It will not normally be seen while diving the wreck site on the bottom, but in the water column or at the surface.  I have seen them many times when fishing for Mahi or Wahoo along the Sargasso weed lines that form along the edges of the current rips and on occasion at the surface on the wreck sites.

The Dusky looks dark blue/grey on the topside with the typical counter shading along the lateral line and then almost white on the belly.  They have a pretty typical "sharky look" to them with one dominant dorsal fin that has a curved front edge that ends in a slightly rounded tip.  Dusky sharks that I have seen had just the hint of very dark coloration on The back ends of the pectoral and dorsal fins.  They are often called by several other names, Brown Shark, Bronze Whaler, as well as the Shovelnose Shark (often used by the local Hatteras commercial fishermen).

According to the literature, a full grown Dusky can reach 12 feet in length, but I have not seen one of that size class in Hatteras just ones of up to around 6 to 7 feet.  The Dusky is reported to be a slow growth shark taking up to 20 years to reach full size and they may live for up to 45 years.  The population of Dusky sharks is heavily affected by commercial long line fishing and they are regularly taken as by-catch in the Sword and Tuna fisheries.  At least they do not go to waste as they are finned for soup and the flesh sold to become fish n chips.  Still, not a good thing for such a slow growth resource and they are listed as Vulnerable and Threatened.  

 

Silky Shark - (Carcharias falciformis)

Silky Shark photo courtesy of Diver Joe PoeThe Silky is a shark that we do not always see on the wreck sites, but for some reason there were several of them noted during the 2010 dive season.  One day in August, they were sighted on the surface at the Dixie Arrow during our surface interval.  A group of them were attracted to the float at the end of the tag line and had a game of knock the float around for a few minutes.  The Silky is an active shark that swim fairly quickly with a smooth distinct motion, when you see one glide past you will know what I mean.  However, it gets the name from their very smooth hides and not the swimming style.  When diving, the largest Silky I have seen in Hatteras has been in the 6 foot range, but when farther offshore Tuna fishing I have seen them closer to ten feet in length.  In the 2013 and 2014 dive seasons, we have had many more Silky sightings than in the past so maybe their numbers are on the increase.

The photo shown of Silky Sharks is courtesy of Diver Joe Poe.

 

Hammerhead Shark - (Sphyrnidae)

There are many different species of the Hammerhead shark and I am not exactly sure which species we are occasionally seeing in Hatteras.  When they are sighted, it is usually a very fleeting encounter and many times they are sighted at the surface from the boat and not in the water during a dive.  They Hammerhead Shark photo courtesy of Diver Joe Poe. seem to show up when the current is strong and they do not tend to hang around long.  The ones that I have seen were 8 to 10 feet in size and I believe them to be the Scalloped Hammerhead -  (Sphyrna lewini), but I have not had a clear enough look to be certain.  Free divers that I know have experienced encounters with them while spearfishing and they did get closer looks than I have had while using SCUBA, but they could not be species specific either.   Diver Joe Poe provide the excellent photo of this Hammerhead that is shown here.

During the 2010 summer, local commercial fishermen were landing Hammerheads in limited numbers that range in size to about 300 pounds.  These sharks are caught in nets and landed whole with the fins sold separately from the meat.

 

Tiger Shark - (Galeocerdo cuvier)

The Tiger Shark has been seen by divers in Hatteras on a few occasions.  My first sighting of a Tiger was while diving the Kassandra Louloudis wreck on the Diamond Shoals.  The Tiger shark came up to me from down current, appeared to be startled at my presence, swam a slow circle around me and then continued on up current and was not seen again.  Of course I did not have a camera with me, so all I have is the story.  

The Tiger has a very stout body shape and a rather broad blunt nose.  It swims in what appears to me to be a purposeful manner and there is no question as to the identity of this shark when seen underwater.  The Tiger when sighted broadside has a variegated "tiger-stripe" pattern that is distinct.  This strip pattern is reported to fade as the shark ages and it has been younger smaller sharks that I have seen diving in Hatteras, that were no more than about 8 feet in length.  Adults Tigers have been reported to be up to 20 feet in length and weigh 1900 pounds and I think if I had encountered one that size, I might not be diving again.

 

Mako Shark - (Isurus oxyrinchus)

The short fin Mako Shark is one that has been seen on occasion by divers in Hatteras.  My first sighting of one was after a dive on the Manuela.  During the deco, the shark came up from down current and made one half circle pass at about half the distance of the visibility then finned off into the haze.  The other divers that have spoken to me about their sightings have also had just brief encounters.  

Even with a short encounter the Mako is easy to identify underwater.  It has a very hydrodynamic shape with a sharp pointy nose.  The tail fin is almost crescent shaped and somewhat symmetrical with the top lobe being a bit larger than the bottom.  The dorsal fin is very triangular with the leading edge swept back a bit and though the Mako has a second dorsal it is so small you probably will not notice it right away.  

The Mako is often targeted as a sport fish in waters North of Hatteras and they are not normally fished for by the sport fishing charters here.  However, the short fin Mako is known to feed on many of the species that frequent our waters in the spring and fall, so the chance of a sighting should increase if diving during those seasons. 

 

Oceanic White Tip Shark - (Carcharhinus longimanus ) 

Only rarely sighted when diving the Hatteras area, it is a shark that if seen underwater will not be forgotten.  It is a large shark and a fast swimmer with very distinct pectoral and dorsal fins.  The fins are long and hold stiff from the body, they are very parabolic in shape with very distinct white tips and look like little surfboards sticking out from the sides and top of the shark.  This shark has only been seen here when the very warm and blue Gulf Stream waters are close in and the current strong.  My encounter with one was at the Dixie Arrow site and the shark was very interested in the divers, left abruptly then returned briefly before disappearing.  The Oceanic White Tip has just recently been granted a protected status and fishing for them will be strictly regulated so their numbers may hopefully be increasing in the future.

 

Great White Shark - (Carcharodon carcharias)

Yes, the star of numerous shark week episodes has been spotted by divers off the North Carolina coast and in the Hatteras area.  The sightings in our area are extremely rare but they have been accurate and one a few years ago was documented with some underwater photos.  Sportfishing boats have also seen them in the area and taken video of them as well.  If you search the Utube files you can find some of it posted there.  The sharks tracked by Ocean Research are pinged off Hatteras often.

My first personal encounter with one of these iconic sharks was not in Hatteras, but off Grand Bahamas island.  I caught a glance of the shark at the edge of my vision and turned around to see a ten to twelve footer fining past about 20 feet away.  It was instantly apparent that it was a Great White and it went off into the haze as the other divers nearby also caught a glimpse of it.   

The second brief encounter happened during the deco stop while the boat was drifting away from the Tarpon wreck site.  The water was very clear and warm as it was in August.  Another diver and I were finishing up a long deco under the boat and I turned to look behind us and a very, very large shark was just 15 or so feet away and a bit deeper then we were hanging.  This large shark turned and presented a brief downward profile view of the pectorals and then it turned away and with one flip of the tail rapidly descended and moved off.  The tail was the last view and it was huge and very distinctly that of the GWS.   I turned to the other diver, but he was gone and heading up the ladder, I followed quickly.  No divers on the boat had seen a thing...

The chances of you actually seeing one of them while on a dive in Hatteras are really not that good, but I keep looking over my shoulder anyway.  

 

Whale Shark - (Rhincodon typus)

Another shark that is somewhat rare to sight in the Hatteras area is the Whale Shark.  It has been reported by other divers on occasion enough to make it a known visitor to the area, but not a common one.  One reliable sighting was from an avid free diver I know who saw and dived with a Whale Shark offshore of Ocracoke at one of the artificial reef sites.  The Whale Shark is a plankton feeder and not a threat to divers despite their size.  I am still waiting for our opportunity to encounter one.

 

 

The photos here are taken in the waters off Hatteras.  If you have dived the Hatteras area and have some good pictures of these sharks and would like to have them added to this page, email me.

 

All Information, Content and Photos contained on the DiveHatteras web site is property of and copyright by DiveHatteras llc, 

Dave and Ann Sommers unless otherwise noted and my not be used without permission.

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