May 032012

As we were cruising the north side of Tortola a few months ago,

heading towards Virgin Gorda,

we came upon a group of pelicans feeding at the surface.

Photo by Matt Spangler

But the pelicans weren’t the only ones feeding.  As we neared the feeding grounds, we were able to view the full extent of the frenzy.  Several large sharks (5-7 feet / 1.5 – 2.1 meters) were circling just below the surface (sorry about the lack of polarization in this photo).

Photo by Matt Spangler

Almost immediately, a few in our party grabbed their masks and fins to investigate.  “Oh no you don’t”, a friendly but stern voice warned from the cockpit, “you’re not getting in that water during a feeding frenzy!”  “We don’t even know the species.”  The captain was right.  The water was not exactly clear at the time, making species ID difficult. After much debate, there was no real consensus.  Personally, I think they were lemons (and no, we didn’t go in, although a small part of my shark-obsessed brain felt compelled to push common sense aside in favor of a cheap thrill).

Anyone care to help me out with this one?  What type of shark were we watching here?  I think they were too small to be tigers.  And what were they eating?  Baitball?  Ray or shark carcas?

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  4 Responses to “Species?”

  1. It is a very tough call even with your pictures – The pelicans do not appear to be feeding on any kind of baitfish. They seem almost calm like sitting down at the table waiting on scraps. Your idea of a carcass is very plausible.

    On the identity sharks, my first thought would be nurse sharks. Belongers call them dogfish. They are by far the most common in the BVI (especially with the sick & dying reefs!). They sort of match the color in your image… But, they feed predominately on reef fish, almost always on the bottom, and prefer to feed at night.

    Maybe the lack of their target species motivated them to feed on a semi-submerged carcass during the day…

    Are you sure they were sharks? Could they have been cobia? The cobia get active in the gulf in spring. They look a bit like a shark – more like a huge ramora. They do have this gold/brown coloring, feed during the day and near the surface.

    • Thanks Scott! You make many good points. I am not 100% sure they were sharks, although I do think we saw dorsal fins. I do not think they were nurse sharks given our location and depth. I have the idea of lemons as being more solitary, more like loners. Hum….

      We didn’t see a bait ball, and I think it would have been visible from the surface.

      As I am typing this comment, I just googled cobia. I think you might have hit on something. Their behavior, size and coloring all match. You may have solved our mystery!

      • Having witnessed the event I can’t 100% tell you they were sharks. Having done quit a bit of saltwater fishing I can say with some certainty that they were not cobia. They were brownish, kind of a flesh colored. My strongest opinion was that they were nurse sharks, but as reef traveler mentioned the depth and location were odd for nurse sharks. Also while we could not identify a bait ball there were definitely small tuna (looked like bonita) slashing about 8 to 10 feet below the surface. Thus the bait ball assumption. Regardless it was an amazing event to witness, even if the captain didn’t let us in the water. Lol

        • It was just odd that between a boat full of divers, two or three experienced fishermen, one experienced boat captain and a biologist (Velma), we couldn’t come to a consensus on the species. One thing we all seemed to agree upon is that they were sharks. Apparently cobia are between 2-4 feet. These were a bit larger than that,if I remember correctly.

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