With a recent attack off the coast of Texas, just the latest alarming story to hit the media, sharks are making us nervous. And sightings are not just occurring in far-off places. For the last few years, Cape Cod has become a popular spot for the intimidating fish, drawn to the area by an increasing seal population.
"There definitely have been more sightings of the great whites along the coast, along the greater Atlantic shores," says Cathy Hagadorn, an education manager at the Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk.
Kids are fascinated by sharks but their curiosity could become anxiety. As we embark on summer vacations, how do we reassure them our waters?
"Should we be concerned? Well, we can pay attention, but just like there's more traffic on I-95, we have to pay attention to that as well," says Hagadorn, explaining that the predatory nature of sharks is actually extremely important to our ecosystem, keeping other fish populations healthy. "A lot of times we're afraid of the Big Bad Wolf and sometimes, in the waters, the Big Bad Wolf could be a shark. So what we like to do at the Maritime Aquarium is teach people about sharks, so they're not so misunderstood."
With a Cousteau movie in the IMAX theatre and a fairly new, waist-high tank in which visitors can reach-in and stroke a nurse shark's back, the aquarium's mission is to share the facts through experience. "Touch the shark, then have a really different perspective," says Hagadorn.
An innovative weekend program puts volunteer divers in the massive shark tank in the center of the facility, which features amphitheater-style seating. Divers wear a mask with a microphone and interact with onlookers.
"One of the most commonly asked questions is, 'Aren't you afraid they're going to come and take a little nibble?' We usually answer that by saying, 'We keep these guys really well fed, so it's not really a concern,'" says Hagadorn. "Human encounters aren't their main focus. It's much easier to catch a seal or much easier to catch a fish."
Pointing out a shark's amazing qualities can also teach our kids. There are more thatn 30 species of the ancient creatures living in New England's waters. Some sharks lay eggs while others give birth to pups. The sand tiger shark weighs several hundred pounds yet eats only twice a week.
"Take a look at their tail, called the caudal fin. It's all muscle and power as they move through the water," says Hagadorn, who worries that unnecessary fear leads to illegal hunting. "We don't want to take them out of the picture because that would upset the balance. They were technically here first millions of years ago, so let's have a little bit of respect and make sure we all share the same place."
Wear your seat belt, look both ways before you cross the street and, certainly, react quickly if a lifeguard spies a shark in the water. But enjoy the beach with your kids this summer, without a focus on the fear factor.
To see video of the Maritime Aquarium's new shark programs, tune into today's Fox CT Morning News.