Just in time for Shark Week: Learn about some of the most majestic and fascinating wildlife at our coastal parks.
This Sunday, cable television’s longest-running programming event returns to Discovery Channel: Shark Week. There are over 1,000 species of sharks, with fossil records dating back 400 million years, meaning sharks have outlived dinosaurs! Many species of sharks can be found at coastal national park sites, and they play an important role in the health of the ocean. Here are just a few of the sharks in parks we are celebrating this Shark Week.
Dry Tortugas National Park
According to the National Park Service, nurse sharks are like the “couch potatoes” of the shark world because of their slow-moving and relaxed nature. They typically live in tropical and subtropical water no deeper than 40 feet, which makes the reefs around the keys that make up Dry Tortugas National Park a perfect home for them. People can swim with nurse sharks without incident, although the sharks will sometimes attack humans if they are antagonized, so it is best to leave them alone if you see them. Because of their normally docile nature, nurse sharks are easy to observe, and Park Service scientists have studied their importance in tropical ecosystems and in keeping coral reefs healthy and diverse.
Everglades National Park
Unlike most ocean-dwelling sharks, bull sharks can adapt to live in both salt and fresh water and can travel for many miles along rivers, including those in Everglades National Park. The best way to see these sharks is by air boat tour, where your guide can point them out, in addition to other native wildlife. However, bull sharks are also known for being extremely aggressive. While humans are not on their menu, it is important for park visitors to follow the rules and leave wildlife alone when boating in the Everglades. Fortunately, the only trouble these sharks have been known to cause for humans in the park is grabbing fish off the hooks of fishermen!
National Park of American Samoa
Blacktip reef shark
The Pacific islands that make up American Samoa are a quintessential tropical paradise. Reef sharks living in nearshore waters are generally not dangerous to swimmers and divers, but they are curious and may swim close to humans to check them out. The most common species are blacktip and whitetip reef sharks, which are usually 4 to 5 feet long and feed on small fish and shellfish. Although they are not targeted by local fisherman and finning is illegal, the fishing industry has disrupted their food chain, and both species are near-threatened. Reef sharks are important to a healthy coral reef ecosystem. Indigenous Samoan people have been living on the islands for nearly 3,000 years, and the park’s land is leased from villages. Conservation has always been a part of Samoan tradition, and all conservation efforts within the park are made by working closely with the chiefs and villagers that live there.
Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve
Pacific sleeper shark
Pacific sleeper sharks are cold-loving, deep-sea swimmers that live more than a mile under water in the oceans of Alaska, Japan and Russia. They are slow, quiet swimmers, allowing them to sneak up on their prey. Scientists in Alaska have been studying this species because it is a close relative of the Greenland shark, which can live for 200 to 300 years, giving us great insight into what life was like in the ocean way back when. According to the National Park Service, Alaska sharks are a part of the native Tlingit culture. The Wooshkeetaan clan of the Xunaa Kwáan (Hoonah and Glacier Bay area) has the shark as its primary crest, and numerous other clans include it as a secondary crest.
Cape Cod National Seashore
Great white shark
Great white sharks usually live in cool water near the coast, so it’s no surprise that an increasing number call Cape Cod home. As an apex predator, these sharks play an important role in ocean health by keeping populations of prey in the food chain in check. While great white sharks are not endangered, they are considered a vulnerable species because of hunting and other human activity. Nearly one third of the world’s shark attacks are attributed to great whites, but the animals don’t feed on humans. Research has shown that the sharks usually take a “sample bite” then release their human targets — though this can still prove fatal. The Park Service educates visitors on shark safety and has commissioned research to help reduce the risk to visitors, but you should always be vigilant when swimming in a coastal park. If you see a shark while visiting the park, the Park Service recommends notifying a lifeguard or ranger and reporting it on the Sharktivity app.
Very few species of sharks are dangerous to people, but if you intend to swim or dive in areas where sharks may be present, be sure to read these Park Service safety tips.
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About the author
Sarah Duensing Senior Communications Coordinator
As the Senior Communication Coordinator at NPCA, Sarah Duensing works on a variety of projects, including work for the blog, advocacy actions and National Parks magazine.