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New Jersey Scuba Diving


New Jersey Scuba Diving

Sharks - Inshore


Here is an assortment of large sharks that can be found in New Jersey waters, by no means all of them. These are more likely to be found inshore in coastal waters. Sharks are seldom a danger to divers, they seem to be put off by the noise and bubbles. None the less, all should be treated with caution.

In all my many inlet dives, I have never seen a shark. I have been told that they are sometimes seen from up on the bridge in Belmar, but even then they would probably be out in mid-channel, and far away from strange noisy bubbling scuba divers. However, one of the most famous shark attacks of all time took place in New Jersey - the 1916 Matawan Creek attacks. See Bull Shark for details.

The only one of these that you are ever likely to encounter in local ocean diving is the relatively inoffensive Sand Tiger, not the similarly named and extremely dangerous Tiger.

This page has many spectacular photographs of sharks. That is because people are fascinated by these sleek and deadly predators, and there are many many great pictures on the internet to choose from. But don't be alarmed - your likelihood of encountering a dangerous shark in New Jersey waters while diving is near nil. If you note the water clarity in most of these pictures, you will realize that they were not taken anywhere near here !

See Restrictions and Health Advisories for catch limits on various species of sharks.

Sand Tiger Shark

Sharks - Inshore

Carcharias taurus

to 11 ft

coastal waters

if provoked, usually unaggressive

Sand Tiger ( or Grey Nurse ) sharks have a broad inshore distribution. In the Western Atlantic, this shark occurs from the Gulf of Maine to Florida, in the northern Gulf of Mexico, in the Bahamas and in Bermuda. The sand tiger or grey nurse shark is one of at least four species belonging to the family Odontaspididae. Synonyms include Carcharias taurus, Eugomphodus taurus and Carcharias arenarius. The recognized FAO common name for this species is the sand tiger shark, but it is also know as the Grey Nurse shark in Australia and the Spotted Raggedtooth shark in southern African waters.

The Sand Tiger shark has a very stocky body and is light brown to greyish color above, merging to off-white on the belly. Dark blotches or spots may occur on the upper two thirds of the body, particularly in juveniles. It has a conical nose, a dorsally flattened head, and all five gill slits are located before the pectoral fin. A small pit is located on the upper side of the caudal peduncle. The teeth, which are similar in both jaws, are long and pointed, with a small spine-like cusp on either side. The first dorsal fin is situated immediately in advance of the ventral fins. The two dorsal fins and the anal fin are all approximately the same size, and the caudal fin has an elongated dorsal lobe. The maximum size of the species has been given variously as 9 feet and 300 lbs, and 11 feet and 600 lbs. Catch records from beach netting in Australia suggest that Sand Tiger sharks may grow to 14 feet. The oldest individuals recorded in aquaria were 13 years and 16 years.

Sand Tiger sharks occur either alone or in small to medium sized schools. They have been observed hovering motionless just above the seabed in or near deep sandy-bottomed gutters or rocky caves, usually in the vicinity of inshore rocky reefs and islands, they are generally coastal, usually being found from the surf zone down to depths around 75 feet. However, they may also be found in shallow bays, around coral reefs and to depths of 600 feet on the continental shelf. They usually live near the bottom, but may also be found throughout the water column.

This is not how I would have preferred my first Sand Tiger encounter.

She turned out to be pretty nice though, and put up with me for quite a while.

This shark is a slow but strong swimmer that is usually more active at night. Although its body is more dense than the water, it has been found to swallow air at the surface and hold it in its stomach to maintain neutral buoyancy.

Mating occurs between late October and the end of November. Courtship may be a lengthy process which involves the males inflicting nips on the female. If she is receptive, mating follows. If not, the male continues biting, inflicting wounds all over her body until she flees. Full term pregnant females move southward each year during July and August to give birth in early spring, and then return northward. Not all migrating females are sexually active and mature females generally reproduce only once every two years.

This species is ovoviviparous ( meaning that they develop as unattached embryos within the uterus, with energy supplied by large egg yolks ) as opposed to viviparous ( live placental birth ) or oviparous ( laying egg cases - like skates ), and usually only one or occasionally two pups are born per litter. This is because the remaining eggs and developing embryos are eaten by the largest and/or most advanced embryo in each horn of the uterus ( uterine cannibalism ). The gestation period may last from 9 to 12 months, and size at birth is relatively large, about three feet.

Sand Tiger sharks have been fished throughout their range, but are of variable economic importance regionally. The species is highly regarded as a food fish in Japan, but not in the Western Atlantic. It is caught primarily with line fishing gear, but is also taken in bottom-set gillnets and on pelagic and bottom trawls. The meat is utilized fresh, frozen, smoked and dried and salted, for human consumption. It has also been used for fishmeal, oil (from its liver) and its fins are used for the Oriental sharkfin trade. Sand tigers are very susceptible to fisheries because they aggregate in large numbers at particular coastal spots at certain times of year. These aggregations have been targeted in the past by fisheries. In addition, the juvenile Sand Tiger sharks are most common and dependent on some of the most polluted estuaries of the eastern US: the Chesapeake, Delaware, and Narragansett bays and the Pamlico and Long Island Sounds. Interuterine cannibalism is another factor that makes this species vulernable, since it limits the litter size to one or two pups.

The Sand Tiger is the famous shark of North Carolina diving.
They are also fairly common off Atlantic City and Cape May.

Sand Tiger sharks have a fearsome battery of long curved needle-like teeth, which are usually on display as the shark typically swims with its mouth open. They adapt more readily than most large sharks to captivity, and are popular subjects at public aquaria. Sand Tiger sharks are strictly protected by law.

You can see Sand Tiger Sharks at most public aquariums, where they become grotesquely fat from overfeeding, to keep them from attacking their tankmates and the maintenance staff !

download: Fishes of the Gulf of Maine

Tiger Shark

Sharks - Inshore

Galeocerdo cuvier

to 24 ft

open ocean, also enters rivers and bays at night

extremely dangerous

If you are going to worry about a shark, let it be this one. Tiger Sharks are big, bold and inquisitive, and frequently come close inshore. They are also remarkably undiscriminating in their eating habits, which makes them even more likely to attack a swimmer, or anything for that matter.

Tiger sharks have the ability to evert ( turn inside-out ) their stomachs, much like starfish. This allows them to 'test' all sorts of food items that would otherwise choke them, like license plates and surf boards.

The tiger-stripe markings are readily apparent in this shot.

Note that this shark and the one above are both swimming
over coral reefs, nowhere near New Jersey !

A Tiger shark approaches some floating chum. Note the squared-off muzzle. The green water looks like somewhere in Florida.

A Tiger shark swims in the surf off Australia. Habits like this are what make this shark so dangerous. Fortunately for us, Australia is very far from New Jersey.

Tiger Shark - Marine Biology - New Jersey Scuba Diving Another video from NJScuba.net -- Tiger Shark - Marine Biology - New Jersey Scuba Diving
Tiger shark displaying its bad habits

download: Fishes of the Gulf of Maine

Bull Shark

Sharks - Inshore

Carcharhinus leucas

to 12 ft, perhaps larger

coastal waters, bays, rivers, into fresh water


The Bull Shark can be recognized by a combination of characters including a stout body, short blunt snout, triangular serrated teeth in the upper jaw and no fin markings as an adult. This species has a second dorsal fin about one third the height of the first, a small eye, and no skin ridge between the two dorsal fins. It is grey above and pale below, sometimes with a pale stripe on the flank.

The Bull Shark can live in a wide range of habitats from coastal marine and estuarine, to freshwater. It has been recorded from the surf zone down to a depth of at least 400 ft. It is the only species of shark that is known to stay for extended periods in freshwater. It has been reported nearly 2400 miles from the sea in the Amazon River system, up the Mississippi River as far as Illinois, and is known to breed in Lake Nicaragua, Central America. It is also common in the rivers of Australia, Africa, South America, and southern Asia, and is a real danger throughout all the rivers of Florida and the southeast United States. Occasional rumors of them in the Great Lakes are almost certainly false; the lakes are far too cold for this warm-water species.

The Bull Shark is a large species which grows to a length of 12 ft. It has an omnivorous diet which includes fishes (including other sharks), dolphins, turtles, birds, mollusks, echinoderms and even terrestrial mammals. This is an aggressive species that is considered dangerous to humans. Some authors consider that the Bull Shark may be more dangerous than the Great White Shark and the Tiger Shark. This is because of the Bull Shark's omnivorous diet and habitat preferences. This species may be found in murky water, where the splashing of a swimmer could be mistaken for a struggling fish.

Bull Sharks typically prefer warmer waters, but are not unknown around here. In fact, one of the most famous shark attacks in history occurred in 1916 in Matawan Creek, right here in New Jersey and not far from where I grew up, and it was probably one of these nasty critters, or perhaps a Tiger Shark. The novel and movie Jaws were inspired by this incident. The Bull Shark is probably the most dangerous shark in our waters. I remember a tour guide at Cape Kennedy once saying that most of the attacks attributed to alligators were really Bull Sharks. Or was it the other way around? Either way, it didn't sound too good.

Note the very small eyes - Bull sharks thrive in murky low-viz waters where keen eyesight is often of no use. Instead, Bull sharks hunt by smell, sound, and touch. This, coupled with their overall aggressiveness, makes them highly likely to strike at unknowns that are not necessarily good prey items, such as humans.

Here's something I hope I never see - a Bull shark at close range, underwater, at night.

Broad rounded snout, underslung mouth, and small eyes mark the Bull shark.

The 1916 Matawan Creek Shark Attacks

The arrows mark the general vicinity of the attacks, about
a mile and a half up the creek, and 12 miles from the ocean.

( The Parkway wasn't there in 1916 ! )

The panic came slowly. On July 1, 1916, 25-year-old Charles E. Van Sant was swimming 16 yards from the shore at Beach Haven when people on the beach saw a black fin slicing towards him and shouted at him to get out. Van Sant splashed madly for the beach. As the shark closed on him, he screamed for help, then went under. The tragedy stirred no great unease along the Jersey shore; one of the minor tragedies of summer.

Five days later the level of anxiety on the Jersey shore made a quantum leap upwards. On July 6 Charles Bruder was attacked while swimming beyond the life-lines at Spring Lake.

Although Bruder's death kept swimmers close to the shore at Spring Lake the next day, even this elementary precaution extended no more than a few miles away. Spring Lake Mayor, Oliver H. Brown, established a motorboat patrol. The boats dragged bait while marksmen with rifles stood ready to shoot should a fin materialize. None did. The Mayor also ordered the beach bathing area enclosed in a shark-proof wire net, a precaution also taken by the nearby resort of Asbury Park.

July 12 brought tropical heat and humidity to Matawan. At 2 p.m., Lester Stilwell, a 12-year-old boy, and four friends headed for the Wyckoff Dock - the town's most popular swimming hole.

The remains of the pier at the site of the attacks

Shortly before Lester and his friends headed for the creek, Captain Thomas Cottrell, a retired sailor, was walking across a new Matawan Creek bridge at Amboy Avenue, about 833 yards downstream from the swimming hole. He saw beneath the sparkling creek surface a huge black shadow moving quickly upstream with the incoming tide. Cottrell did not stop to tell himself that no shark could be that far upstream, he ran for a telephone and called the town's barber, John Mulsonn, who was also the chief of police, then he ran to Main Street telling groups of boys headed for the creek, merchants and their customers: "There's a shark in the creek!" People thought he was crazy: a shark? In a creek 11 yards across at its widest? Poor old Tom's eyes must have been playing tricks on him.

Lester Stilwell was floating further away from the pier than his friends when they saw him suddenly disappear, reemerge, scream, then disappear in a flurry. His friends sprinted into Matawan shouting that Lester had had a fit in the creek and had disappeared in the water. Men, women and children were streaming from the town to the pier, among them Lester Stilwell's parents. Stanley Fisher yanked on his bathing trunks and plunged into the creek. About 200 people lined the banks while men in rowing boats poled for Stilwell's body.

The urgency of the moment was very powerful: several other men were also in the creek, making repeated dives, clawing along the mud for the boy's body. After several dives Fisher surfaced and shouted to the watchers: 'I've got it.' He had a grip on Lester's body and struck out for the nearer shore opposite the pier, followed by two men in a motorboat. He stood up in waist-deep water near the bank, then staggered, cried out, and dropped into a crouch; both hands clamped around his right leg. He was pulled into a boat. A stretcher was improvised from planks and he was carried to the Matawan railroad station. He was placed aboard the 5:06 train. At 7:45 he was being wheeled into the operating theatre of the Monmouth Memorial Hospital, he died. The townspeople - frightened and angered by the monster - collected dynamite and set underwater charges near the pier.

It was in the background just beyond the bend that Joseph Dunn was attacked, about a half-mile downstream from where the shark struck Lester Stillwell.

Just as the charges were ready for blasting, a motorboat roared upstream to the pier with another shark victim. Joseph Dunn, a 14-year-old from upper Manhattan, had been swimming with several other boys off a dock 867 yards downstream from the Wyckoff pier when someone ran up with a warning. 'There's been two shark attacks upstream - get out of the water!' the boys struck out quickly for the dock. Joseph, the last out, was on the ladder when the shark seized his right leg. 'I felt my leg going down the shark's throat - I thought it would swallow me, ' he said. Seriously injured, he was rushed to St. Peter's Hospital in New Brunswick.

Matawan Creek boiled and spurted geysers as if a primal force had been let loose. Before the sun set the town was also out of ammunition: hundreds of men lined the creek banks armed with handguns, rifles and shot-guns. A small army of newspaper reporters and photographers descended on the creek, while newsreel cameramen filmed the vengeful fury. With the incoming tide, sightings abounded; with the outgoing tide, escaping sharks abounded. A chicken wire net was strung across the creek just above Wyckoff Dock, and a strong fishnet across the bridge where Captain Cottrell sighted the black shadow.

On July 14 funeral services for Lester Stilwell, whose body had not been recovered, and Stanley Fisher were conducted in Matawan. The same day, a Manhattan taxidermist, who had caught a 5 foot shark off New Jersey, exhibited two bones found in its stomach - one of them identified by physicians as a boy's shinbone. This shark became known as "The Jersey Man-Eater".

Lester Stillwell's body was recovered several days later near the railroad crossing. Joseph Dunn survived. Fifty-nine days after the attack he left St. Peter's Hospital. His leg would always bear the purple scars, but he was able to walk away.

Scalloped Hammerhead

Sharks - Inshore

Sphyrna lewini

to 13 ft

coastal waters


Sharks such as the Hammerhead, that have their eyes positioned on lateral extensions of their heads belong to the family Sphyrnidae. ( Sphyrna is Greek for hammer. ) Four species occur in the region:

The last species is easily distinguished from the others because it has a shovel-shaped, as opposed to a hammer-shaped, head. The first three species are more difficult to separate. The Scalloped Hammerhead, the most frequently caught of the group, is recognized by smooth teeth and by an indentation in the front margin of the head at its midpoint. The Great Hammerhead has teeth with serrated margins, and a relatively smooth midline on the head. The Smooth Hammerhead is rarely encountered.

Atlantic hammerhead shark species

  1. Smooth Hammerhead
  2. Scalloped Hammerhead
  3. Great Hammerhead
  4. Bonnethead

Scalloped Hammerhead Biology
Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks ( Sphyrna lewini) are probably the most commonly found species of hammerheads located in coastal regions, appearing in very shallow waters such as estuaries and inlets. Their distribution in the water reaches from the surface down to a depth of approx. 300 ft. The young, however, remain mostly in shallow waters along the shore to avoid the danger of falling into the mouths of predators. At certain times of the year and places, and during certain phases of their lives, scalloped hammerheads form very large schools, sometimes counting hundreds of individuals, but they also swim the oceans alone. Some populations remain stationary, others clearly wander, migrating in the direction of the poles in summer. Some sexually-related migrations have also been observed, e.g. females who undertake migrations during particular periods of their sexual development.

The Scalloped Hammerhead shark belongs to the large hammerhead species, and like all representatives of this family, has the typically formed "hammer" consisting of a central dent and an arched front edge ( hence the name ). Another typical characteristic is the free end tip of the second dorsal fin which almost reaches the tail fin. Their coloring is mainly olive, bronze or light brown with a white belly. The edges of the fins are usually darker on young animals but becomes lighter as they grow older.

Mature females can reach a length of more than 13 feet, the average length is, however, less. Males reach sexual maturity at a length of about 63", females when they reach approx. 83". The pups measure approximately 24" at birth.

This hammerhead species feeds mostly on fish such as sardines, herring and mackerels, occasionally also on invertebrates such as octopuses. Large scalloped hammerhead sharks also eat small-sized shark species such as the Atlantic Sharpnose shark ( Rhizoprionodon terraenovae) or the Blacktip Reef shark ( Carcharhinus melanopterus).

Scalloped Hammerheads bear their young alive and have an egg yolk placenta. Pregnancy lasts between 9 and 10 months. Depending on their size, the females give birth to between 15 and 30 pups. The "hammer" is made of cartilage and is very soft when the young are born so as to ease the birth process. Young scalloped hammerheads grow relatively slowly when compared to other shark species.

Scalloped Hammerhead sharks are found practically around the world in the coastal regions of tropical, subtropical and moderate climate zones. The species is distributed in the western Atlantic from New Jersey to southern Brazil, including the Caribbean, Gulf of Mexico, and Central American coast.

As already mentioned, this shark species tends to form huge schools whose function is presumed to be manifold and may, among other things, concern feeding habits and reproduction. Although many studies also consider this behavior to be a group protective function, this is somewhat questionable since the animals have practically no natural enemies after reaching full maturity. Groups of Scalloped Hammerheads prefer staying in regions which have pinnacles or sea mounts which reach from great depths practically to the water's surface. Latest research also shows that these sharks can make use of the earth's magnetic field during their migrations.

Scalloped Hammerhead

Encounters with Humans
Although these sharks have definitely been involved in accidents, they are not really considered dangerous in the sense of being aggressive. Since they often appear in estuaries where visibility is very limited and where the influence of fresh water does not allow an optimal reaction of their electrical sensors ( ampullae of Lorenzini ), any accidents with humans are more likely a defensive reaction when surprised or frightened.

Similar Species
When it comes to size and appearance three additional species resemble the Scalloped Hammerhead and are commonly found in the latter's area of distribution. These include the Great Hammerhead ( Sphyrna mokarran), the Smooth Hammerhead ( Sphyrna zygaena) and the Whitefin Hammerhead ( Sphyrna couardi). They can be differentiated by the form of their "hammers", the first dorsal fins and by color. Identification problems with the Whitefin Hammerhead are only possible in the latter's area of distribution which is limited to the Ivory Coast.

from: www.sharkinfo.ch / Dr. Erich K. Ritter / K. Amsler

download: Fishes of the Gulf of Maine



I make no claim as to the accuracy, validity, or appropriateness of any information found in this website. I will not be responsible for the consequences of any action that is based upon information found here. Scuba diving is an adventure sport, and as always, you alone are responsible for your own safety and well being.

Copyright © 1996-2016 Rich Galiano
unless otherwise noted



since 2016-09-11