Here's What It Feels Like To Pet A Live Shark

Mar 26, 2013

When we caught the first shark of the day, I'd already spent a good hour or so turning Neil Hammerschlag's words over in my head, like a gambler might fidget with a lucky coin in his pocket: 

"We might not see any sharks today." 

Writer Tricia Woolfenden performs a nictitating membrane reflex test on a female bull shark during a shark tagging expedition.
Credit Megan Jacobson /

This became the internal mantra used to steel myself against the very real possibility that sharks might forever remain on the screen and out of my grasp. The crew of scientists aboard the research trip I had joined had a series of rituals -- kissing the bait, chanting a single Shark! in unison before the first line pickup. They said it helped to "bring the good mojo" and attract sharks. Believing I might not see a shark was mine. 

And then she came on the line: A massive female bull shark.

As a researcher guided her up to the boat, I leaned over starboard and peered down into the clear Atlantic. I watched as she pirouetted a few feet below the surface, flipping and turning, fighting against the pull. It took probably less than three minutes but it seemed like a lifetime as this animal -- so often thought of as nothing but an ugly monster -- danced on the line.

My stomach dropped. I swallowed hard and pulled down the bill of my black baseball hat, grateful for the pair of dark sunglasses I could push up the bridge of my nose to hide my eyes: She was magnificent.  

Sharks are covered in dermal denticles, a neat scientific term that roughly translates to "tiny skin teeth." The texture is often likened to sandpaper. Pumice stone and a particularly rough cat's tongue also are apt comparisons. Those "tiny teeth" help to improve a shark's underwater aerodynamics and protect it from parasites and other predators in the event of a confrontation. The shark's scales can easily tear delicate human skin, not unlike those multiple rows of replaceable teeth that get so much attention. 

Hammerschlag, a shark researcher and director of the R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program, bears a patchwork of purple, pink, and white scars on his hands, arms, legs, and feet -- a byproduct of a decade or so of close contact with hundreds of sharks in the wild. On a recent RDJ shark tagging expedition, led by Hammerschlag, I was one of 20 or so guests who put human hand to shark body with nary a physical repercussion. 

The educational outings -- which combine scientific research with public outreach -- bring non-biologists face-to-face with some of nature's most feared and misunderstood predators. The trips are an opportunity for some, like me, to live out long-held fantasies of an otherwise out-of-reach career in marine biology. For others, it's a chance to tackle a fear of the unknown. Or more specifically, sharks. 

The program allows participants to jump in and get their feet wet in the scientific process (but maybe don't roll up those sleeves, since the less skin exposed to the dermal denticles, the better). Each shark that is caught -- and with less and less sharks in the oceans every day, catching a shark becomes a greater challenge -- is "worked up." Volunteer citizen scientists are given jobs like measuring the subject from tip to tail, taking muscle biopsies, and performing a "fin clip."

Twice, I had the chance to assist in working up female bull sharks. These massive beasts are apex predators, sitting at the top of their oceanic food chain and striking fear into the hearts of many a Floridian. Both times, I asked to perform the nictitating membrane test, in which a small vial of ocean water is carefully (but forcefully) squirted into the shark's eye to record whether the "eyelid" involuntarily closes. The crew performs this reflex test at the beginning and end of the process to check for stress.

I picked the job because it seemed relatively easy and it was the least popular. I liked the task because it required the administrator to lean into the shark and look it directly in the eye. 

Human and shark safety is Hammerschlag's top priority, and it shows. The shark tagging operation is a carefully orchestrated machine. The crew of scientists and students work with care, speed, and efficiency, shouting orders and directives with clarity and confidence as they collect the data that will be used to learn more about "the secret lives of sharks."

But this isn't Sea World: These are wild animals on the open water. Sharks don't deserve to be cast as "cold-blooded killers" -- an anthropomorphism that undervalues the animal's vital role in oceanic ecosystems -- but they have had millions of years to evolve into the masters of the underwater world. So yeah, a little intimidating.

How does it feel to pet a live shark? Humbling. 

Tricia Woolfenden's report of a recent shark tagging outing with the R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program can be found here.