Sandbar shark Shedd

According to Travelocity's new Shark Week-themed website, Chicago is more than 1,200 miles away from the nearest shark. That's not true at all though. Nestled along the shore of Lake Michigan just east of the South Loop neighborhood, Shedd Aquarium is home to 11 different species of sharks and routinely keeps close to 20 on display, primarily in its stunning Wild Reef exhibit. 

In honor of Shark Week, Chicago Like A Local had the opportunity to speak to one of the Shedd's leading shark experts, Lise Watson, about what sharks you'll see when you visit the aquarium and some of the myths behind sharks that need to be dispelled. 

What is your position at the Shedd and what is your experience when it comes to working with sharks?

My title is Wild Reef Collections Manager. The Wild Reef is the newest section of Shedd Aquarium. It was built 11 years ago. I've been managing that for the past 10 years. Prior to that my job was to acquire our collection of animals in Wild Reef so I spent a lot of time traveling, working on the collection of sharks and transporting them here to the aquarium. 

I came into that job because I have been working with sharks for quite a long time, about 28 years now on and off. I've done field work and have transferred them from one location to another and there aren't a lot of people who have done that. I've worked with a number of different animals but sharks are definitely my first love. 

I learned before this interview that the Shedd Aquarium actually trains its Wild Reef sharks. I was totally unaware that they're able to learn behaviors like that. 

The sharks are trained in the similar fashion to the way we train mammals here or even how people train their dogs at home. We use positive reinforcement but the goal of training our sharks is primarily so they come to us to feed. Depending on the species, there are other goals that we can have. 

Blacktip reef shark Shedd

The reason I say depending on the species is because a shark like a blacktip reef shark (pictured above) is much more skittish and they have to swim continuously to breathe. So it kind of limits what you're able to do. We just try to get those guys to come to the feed station. They recognize a shape that we put in the water and a sound that we set off that's unique to that shape. We use different shapes for each species. It's just conditioning and being consistent with what we do. It starts out by just getting them to feed from us and working our way up to them recognizing that that shape becomes associated with food and then ultimately that the shape and a sound go together and, when they hear that sound, they find the shape and look for food. 

Zebra shark Shedd

We work with the zebra sharks (pictured above) very closely. They're a shark that does not have to swim continuously in order to breathe so we can do a lot more with them. We get them to follow a target. It allows us to roll them over and look at their bellies. We can even hold them at the side of the pool for things like ultrasounds. 

I'm looking at a picture of a zebra shark right now. These don't look like a very aggressive species of shark. 

They actually are very docile. They eat invertebrates, so snails and clams are their natural diet. They root around in the sand and have kind of a suction mouth. When they come up to feed from us they make this loud slurping sound. They're able to suck in a whole clam, eat the meat out and then crush the shell and spit it back out. It's pretty easy for us to handle them especially if they're born here or we get them when they're juveniles because they're used to people all of their lives. And they're very food motivated. I tell people all the time that they're the golden retrievers of the sea. 

I know there are other animals and fish on display in the Wild Reef and I've always been curious as to how one goes about figuring out which sharks and fish can live together without it turning into a feeding frenzy. 

The training is actually a big part of why they're not going after their tank mates. They're trained to come to us and we have a specific amount of food for every individual animal that's based on their metabolism and weight. So they're getting ideally what they need from us and it's a lot more difficult to go hunt down healthy fish. In the wild they prey upon the weak and the sick. That's one of the ways they help to maintain balance in the seas.

However, there is another piece to putting these animals in an exhibit together and there is definitely a method. We do have to be very careful about the sizes, when we introduce them and how we introduce them. It's very different from one to another. A lot of that goes back to experience and knowing what animals go well together and which ones don't. 

When we put Wild Reef together, we put all of the bony fish in first, all of the animals that were not sharks or rays, so they would get used to the exhibit and become comfortable. Then we started introducing the zebra sharks that weren't going to be aggressive towards the fish and then smaller sharks like the blacktips. The last ones that we put in were the sandbar sharks because they're the biggest and they're the most predatory. We just had to make sure that everybody else in the exhibit was comfortable so that the biggest predators were the ones who were kind of off their game in a new habitat. It worked out beautifully. We still have to introduce new animals since then but we do it in groups and we keep an eye on things and put divers in the water. 

That's really interesting. The Wild Reef is one of my favorite parts of the Shedd to visit. 

I'm partial to it as well. [laughs]

Shedd Wild Reef

I'm sure you're around a lot of visitors to the aquarium and who don't have 28 years of experience with sharks like yourself so what are some of the biggest misconceptions about the animals that you hear from them?

Well, everybody thinks that they're scary and that they're not safe for us to go into the exhibit with. I just love dispelling those myths. I enjoy the times that I do get to go into the exhibit to do maintenance and interact with our guests. People see that we can work very safely with the animals. We also do some feedings in there. We have some wobbegong sharks that are on the bottom of the exhibit that we have to dive to the bottom to feed. The other sharks really don't pay any attention to us which is generally how it is in the wild.

The biggest thing is that people think they need to be feared and honestly we tell people all the time that you're more likely to be struck by lightning than you are to be bitten by a shark. Those instances happen so infrequently and they're generally considered to be cases of mistaken identity and they do often happen in areas where there's fishing or other activities going on that are drawing sharks into the area. 

The other thing that I tell people all the time is that sharks actually have a lot more to fear from us because we're killing about 100 million a year and their populations are declining at a rate that's completely unsustainable. 

Wow, is that because of hunting or pollution or something else? 

Well, about half of that is bycatch, they're caught in nets that are intended for other species. The other half is intentional and a lot of it is for things like shark fin soup. The problem with that is with the number of these top predators declining so fast, it really is changing the food chain in ways that we can't even completely anticipate. 

Aside from conservation of the sharks you have at the aquarium, is Shedd doing anything in particular to fight these declining populations or bring awareness to them? 

One of the things that we're doing here is helping to create sustainable populations of these sharks in public aquaria so that means I'm involved in a lot of shark breeding. Even as of last week we had four blacktip reef shark births. We have another one who is pregnant right now. Only a few places have had success in breeding them so we're known for that. 

The other things is the zebra sharks. That is actually my specialty because I run something called a species survival plan for the Association for Zoos and Aquariums, which the Shedd belongs to. I actually manage all of the breeding of zebra sharks throughout North America. So I basically work the genetics of the whole population. We look at the population as a whole, not just what each individual aquarium or zoo has, and we try to put zebra sharks together for breeding purposes. I'm a zebra shark matchmaker! 

We also hosted Governor Pat Quinn when he signed the bill to make shark products illegal in Illinois. 

Whitespotted bamboo shark eggs SheddWhitespotted Bamboo Shark Eggs

And these sharks all have their own personalities, right? I'm sure that you grow pretty close to the ones you work with at the Shedd. I believe you have one named Bubbles? 

That's one of our zebra sharks. She was born here at the aquarium. She got that nickname because she likes to play in our bubbles when we're scuba diving in there. You can take your air regulator and a burst of air come out underneath her belly and she'll dance almost like it tickles. It's the funniest thing to watch. 

We have an area in the back of the exhibit for our sawfish to lay down and we like to keep it covered with sand. I was down there one time pushing sand back over the area and another zebra shark named Vera came up and started pushing sand with her nose. I was like, ‘This is ridiculous." [laughs] She was doing the same thing I was doing with my hands. So, those are the fun things that we get to see. Cleo, another zebra shark, spits at us if we don't feed her right away. 

Well, I know you have a very busy schedule so I won't keep you much longer but is there anything that people should keep in mind while they watch all of these "Shark Week" documentaries and specials this week?

Well, I like "Shark Week" because it brings awareness to these animals. They are fascinating but people just have to understand that you have to know what the source of the information you're getting is. Take entertainment and movies for what they are but try to find out the real facts from folks like us.  

For a full listing of Shedd Aquarium's Shark Week activities, click here. The fun doesn't stop on Friday though. For a one-of-a-kind experience with Shedd's sharks, take the Behind the Scenes in Wild Reef tour. Be there for feeding time and have your questions answered by a resident shark expert. This tour is offered year round. 

Photos Courtesy of Shedd Aquarium