Sharks Jump The Shark: 4 Other Fascinating Sea Creatures In New England Waters

August 23, 2013

Sure, Shark Week is a neat idea. Yes, "Jaws" is an incredible movie. And, okay, "Sharknado" is a thing. But with New England shark sightings on the rise, parents vetoing swimming in area waters, and Chatham's use of sharks as the centerpiece for a marketing campaign, it's beginning to feel like the sharks are hogging the spotlight.

Sure, they're ancient, fierce and fascinating, but they're not the only fish in the sea.

What other creatures are lurking in the briny deep off the coast of New England? I turned to a few experts, and asked each of them to make their pitch for one area sea creature that is long overdue for its closeup.

OCEAN SUNFISH (Mola mola)

Dr. John Mandelman, Research biologist at the New England Aquarium (who happens to study sharks)

Mola Mola (Ocean Sunfish)
Caption
Photo Credit: Per-Ola Norman

Tell us about the ocean sunfish.

What first jumps out is its size. The average adult weighs around a couple thousand pounds. There are closely related to puffer fish and there is speculation that they may also possess some kind of neurotoxins. There are the heaviest off all the species bony fish in the world (i.e. tuna, swordfish, minnows). Even though they are bony fish, they have a lot of cartilage as well, which is a characteristic of sharks. They are odd looking, almost what you'd call an evolutionary oddity. They have large dorsal and anal fins, but it looks like their body got cut off. Because of that dorsal fin, which sometimes sticks out of the water, they are commonly mistaken for sharks in the northern Atlantic.

Where might you see them?

Here we see them all over, sometimes fairly close to shore. We see them in Massachusetts Bay and the Gulf of Maine. I saw one yesterday, just off the coast of Gloucester. We even had one recently in Weymouth harbor that some people thought might be a shark. They are often observed at the surface even though recent research has shown that they likely spend more time at depth. They feed at the surface on various jellies. There is a theory that they also rise to the surface to "bask in the sun" so to speak. They can be a little skittish (they are deceptively fast), but sometimes boats can get right up on them.

What makes them better than sharks?

People love large creatures and these guys are large! Their size and their body shape are so strange, and we gravitate to things that look different from the norm. Nothing makes sense about how they look. And they have these massive body sizes despite eating a low calorie diet. I wouldn't call them majestic or beautiful, just plain odd. And odd equals fascinating.

LEATHERBACK SEA TURTLE (Dermochelys coriacea)

Connie Merigo, Director of the Rescue and Rehab Department at the New England Aquarium

Connie Merigo attends to a rare stranded leatherback turtle on South Beach in Chatham, Mass.
Caption
Photo Credit: New England Aquarium

Tell us about the Leatherback Sea Turtle.

It's the largest of all seas turtles and might be the largest reptile on earth. They are huge - upwards of 1,000 pounds. They've been swimming in the oceans for over 50 million years. Imagine that. An animal that was swimming around at the same time Tyrannosaurus rex was walking the Earth. And they are still here today. They power themselves exclusively on jellyfish. That the leatherback sea turtle has been able to adapt and survive, that right there is really a Superman situation. They are endangered however, and some populations are critically endangered and in jeopardy of extinction.

Where might you see them?

They are all around this time of year. Cape Cod Bay, Nantucket Sound, Buzzards Bay, off the coast of Maine, off the coast of Rhode Island and Connecticut. They essentially move where the jelly fields are moving. Right now there are massive amount of them near Block Island. One fisherman recently told me said "you could walk across their backs if you wanted to." They migrate as far north as Canada in the summertime and then turn and head down to breeding grounds as far south as South America. Some will go way out to sea.

What makes them better than sharks?

They are the only turtle - maybe the only reptile - that can generate metabolic heat. These animals can go into the cold water of the Canadian maritime because somehow they are able to maintain body heat . It's really confused scientists. It's a turtle. It's a reptile. Its ectothermic (cold blooded). And yet somehow it does this. There is a new term, which is becoming popular, used to describe them: Gigantotherm, which means a giant reptile able to generate heat.

OCTOPUS (Octopus vulgaris)

Sy Montgomery, nature author

Common Atlantic Octopus
Caption
Photo Credit: Beckmannjan

Tell us about Octopuses.

There are over 200 species of these guys. They can pour themselves through a hole the size of a thimble, they have a beak like a parrot, and venom like a snake. They can change color, pattern, and the texture of their skin extremely dramatically. They are so expressive that they make our artists, poets, dancers and musicians seem totally lame. They can taste with their whole bodies. Imagine if you could taste with your eyelids. They are very smart. They recognize individual people, and they can open the childproof caps on Tylenol bottles, which most PHDs can't do.

Where might you see them?

What we have around here is the common octopus, or Octopus vulgaris, which are found all over the Atlantic ocean. Fisherman might pull them up by mistake, but if you are swimming you aren't likey yo run into one. If you want to meet a Pacific octopus, the New England Aquarium has a fascinating one named Karma who just laid eggs. At this point it's not known if she had a boyfriend, but octopuses lay up to 100,00o eggs at a time (each is the size of a grain of rice) so, if she did, we might soon be up to our necks in octopuses.

What makes them better than sharks?

Sharks can't kiss you. Octopuses can kiss you 1,800 times because every sucker can give you a hug and a kiss. I've come home with hickeys from them. My husband doesn't mind.

OYSTERS (Crassostrea virginica)

Chris Sherman, VP of Island Creek Oysters

Oysters in Wellfleet.
Caption
Photo Credit: Nesson Marshall/Flickr

Tell us about oysters.

First of all, they are shellfish. They are bivalves, which means they bring water in one way and then pump cleaner water out the other way. In the wild, they form reefs and many generations of oysters grow on the shells of older oysters. The oysters found along the east coast are native to the east coast. There are wild oysters and farmed oysters. Wild oysters exists in an estuary, naturally born there. Farmed oysters you'd start in a closed environment and grow them to the point where they are ready to be harvested. It's like the difference between finding an apple tree in the woods that grew naturally from a seed that fell from another tree and an apple tree in an orchard.

Where do you find them?

Pretty much everywhere. They grow naturally here on the East Coast of North America, everywhere from the Canadian Maritimes all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. The hotbed around here is Cape Cod, though you find them in Maine, as well as Connecticut and Rhode Island. They grow in estuaries and marshes close to the land, only as far as a few miles out at most.

What makes them better than sharks?

They are way better than sharks. An adult oyster will filter, on average, 50 gallons of water everyday, removing pollution from the water. They make the water very clean and very clear. That clarity allows more sunlight to reach the bottom of the estuary and that means more plants can grow and that is good for everything along the food chain. Oysters are one of the few foods we grow that is a net benefit for the environment where we grow it. But most important, they don't eat you … you eat them.


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