Across the world’s oceans, there are over four hundred distinct species of sharks. We only know a handful of these—the Great White, the Hammerhead, the Tiger—as the strange but familiar marine monsters that have come to haunt the human imagination. The rest have long escaped the attention of human onlookers while remaining crucial members of the ocean communities where they are top, or “apex,” predators.
Join Nat Geo WILD for SharkFest as we dive into the world of sharks. This series will explore the amazing diversity of sharks around the world, as well as the often-complicated relationships between sharks and people.
SharkFest kicks off tonight at 8/7c with Shark Alley: A Frenzied Migration. Each spring, a great wave of migration sweeps up along the eastern coast of South Africa, attracting billions of participants from all over the marine animal kingdom. It’s the event of the year, driven by instinct, and no creature—from the smallest sardine to the largest Brydes whale—dares to miss it.
For over 700 miles from Cape Agulhas at the southernmost tip of Africa, schools of sardines numbering over one billion lead the charge along the coast, swimming in close quarters along a cold-water current. Following close behind on the sardine hunt are Cape seals and Cape gannet seabirds, with bottlenose and common dolphins on their tails.
But these animals will, too, soon become prey: whether they know it or not, they are trailed by hordes of some of the deadliest sharks on Earth. From the Bronze Whaler and Ragged-tooth to the Great White, Hammerhead and Zambezi (Bull) sharks, the South African coastline can count many of the ocean’s most bloodthirsty predators among its ranks. With these hungry sharks on the prowl, this annual migration will soon become one of the world’s greatest feeding frenzies, turning into a desperate race for survival for fish and seals alike.
How do sharks hunt?
Unlike many land predators, which rely on vision and hearing to detect and hunt down their prey, sharks use a range of unique “tools” to find their next meal. These include an unusually perceptive sense of smell, pressure-sensing lateral lines on their bodies, and electromagnetic receptors on their snouts, known as ampullae of Lorenzini, that allow them to sense any creature within range. Fish and seals can try to escape, but it’s unlikely that they can hide from these perceptive hunters.
Then at 9/8c, don’t miss The United Sharks of America. Nestled between the Atlantic, Pacific, and Caribbean, the United States is prime shark territory. A wide variety of species, from the tropical Tiger Shark to the colder-water Great White, are at home in the U.S.’s offshore waters. However, as beach tourism continues to grow in places like Hawaii, Florida, California, and the Carolinas, opportunities for encounters between humans and sharks are growing, too. Although they are rare, and are even more rarely fatal, shark attacks can happen whether waters are shallow or deep, warm or cold, crowded or empty.
Though they are certainly still intimidating animals, it seems that sharks now inspire more awe and respect than they do outright terror. Shark researchers have the often-difficult job of convincing people not to allow their fear of sharks to make them want to destroy these hugely important animals. Surprisingly, people who have been attacked by sharks are often the animals’ most vocal advocates, speaking out in support of protection and respect for these fearsome, but crucial, wild creatures.