This story was originally published in August 2020.
After the fatal great white shark attack that occurred off the coast of Maine in 2020, some people may be questioning their knowledge of the Maine ocean and its many inhabitants. A place known for its lobsters and humpback whales, Maine isn’t thought of as a territory for sharks. Yet it’s home to eight different shark species, including the world’s fastest and the world’s second largest.
“It’s a fact that most people don’t know, and it just blows their mind,” said James Sulikowski, who has researched sharks off the New England coast for 20 years and has been featured in Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” programs. “Most of [the sharks in Maine] spend a lot of time below the surface, so we don’t even know they’re there. That’s, I think, what freaks people out.”
Yet the sharks found off the coast of Maine don’t usually come into contact with people or pose any sort of threat. Shark attacks are extremely rare, Sulikowski said.
“Any large shark is potentially a hazard to people, say if you’re taking a hook out of its mouth or you’re feeding them,” said John Mandelman, vice president and chief scientist at the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at the New England Aquarium. “There are sharks that frequent Maine waters that are large and they’re wild animals, so they should be respected for that. But the risk of someone who is swimming or doing things for recreation [being attacked by a shark in Maine] is very low.”
Here are the eight sharks that have been documented off the coast of Maine, all unique in appearance and behavior.
A relatively small shark, the Atlantic spiny dogfish grows up to 4 feet long, with a slim, gray body sporting distinct white spots. It feeds primarily on crustaceans, jellyfish, squid and schooling fish, and is often preyed upon by large fish such as red hake and cod, as well as larger sharks and seals, according to information on the species provided by NOAA Fisheries.
Spiny dogfish are also often consumed by people. In the United States, its fishery extends from Florida to Maine. Currently, there’s little consumer demand for this animal’s meat in the states, but in Europe, it’s commonly used in “fish and chips” dishes.
Like most of Maine’s sharks, dogfish migrate up to Maine when the water warms in the summer, then return south for the winter. Their common name is a nod to their many dog-like qualities, Sulikowski said, including their ferocious pursuit of prey and their tendency to travel in giant packs. It’s known as Maine’s most abundant shark.
Considered one of the most beautiful sharks, the blue shark has a dark blue back, vibrant blue sides and a stark demarcation to a white underside. When mature, it typically measures between 6 and 9 feet long, according to the Shark Research Institute. And it usually swims far from shore, though it occasionally ventures closer to the shore at night, particularly around islands.
“It’s the next most common shark we have in Maine for sure,” Sulikowski said.
This shark is known for cruising slowly at the surface of the water with the tips of its dorsal and tail fins visible. It feeds on squid, fish, small sharks and the very occasional seabird.
The basking shark is the second largest fish in the world and the largest shark that lives in the waters off New England. The shark’s Latin name, Cetorhinus maximus, translates to “big-nosed sea monster,” an apt description. A mature shark of this species is typically 20 to 28 feet in length. However, adults have been recorded at lengths of over 40 feet, weighing close to 19 tons, according to the New England Basking Shark Project, a community sighting network for the species sponsored by the New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance.
They’re often seen traveling and feeding near the water’s surface, which gave rise to their common name “basking,” as in “basking in the sun.” Using bristle-like structures called gill rakers, located in the back of their throat, they filter zooplankton (small organisms) out of the water to consume.
“They come here every year to feed on very specific types of crustaceans and copepods,” Sulikowski said. “They’re filter feeders, so they just swim around with their mouths open, and sometimes they’ll come super close to shore. Nine out of 10 times that’s what people see and think they’re white sharks, but they don’t really have teeth.”
The shortfin mako is considered the fastest shark in the world, able to reach burst swimming speeds of up to 43 mph. It can grow to 12 feet in length and weigh over 1,000 pounds.
Typically found far from shore, this shark is considered one of the greatest game fishes in the world, with its meat, fins and oil all highly valued. And due to its speed and size, it’s considered potentially dangerous to humans, according to the Florida Museum of Natural History.
“They’re in the fairly rare category in Maine,” Sulikowski said. “And they’re typically going to stay more offshore. It’s a big fast predator so it likes to eat fast fish.”
Porbeagle sharks are muscly, spindle-shaped sharks that grow to an average of 5 to 6.5 feet long and roughly 300 pounds. Known for migrating long distances, they eat small fish, sharks and squid and are typically found in the open ocean. In fact, they’ve been discovered swimming up to 2,300 feet underwater.
“What you’d interact with mainly in Maine would be the [porbeagle] babies,” Sulikowski said. “The Gulf of Maine, particularly our water in southern Maine up to the midcoast, is a particular nursery ground. It’s where [the porbeagle sharks] drop their kids off.”
The name porbeagle probably comes from a combination of “porpoise,” referring to its shape, and “beagle,” referring to its hunting tactics, according to information published online by the Florida Museum of Natural History.
With an extremely long tail fin, the Atlantic common thresher shark is easy to pick out from the crowd. In fact, this long, scythe-like tail is what inspired their common name. They use it to stun fish before eating them. They also have the ability to jump far out of the water and will sometimes conduct this maneuver when fighting a fish hook.
Reaching upto 20 feet in length, they feed on schooling fish such as herring and mackerel and occasionally on squid and seabirds.
Sand tiger shark
With a mouthful of narrow, pointed teeth that are always visible, it’s no wonder how the sand tiger shark got its name. However, this intimidating animal — ranging from 6.5 to 10.5 feet in length — is not known to be aggressive to humans unless threatened, according to a write-up on the species published online by the National Aquarium. They eat fish, small rays and squids.
“This is the classic aquarium shark, with the big teeth and kind of moves around looking super scary — but it’s all show,” Sulikowski said.
Often found swimming near the ocean floor, sand tiger sharks travel close to shore, but they’re rarely spotted in Maine waters. The species is listed as vulnerable globally by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and is critically endangered in some parts of the world.
In Maine, the taking of sand tiger sharks and other coastal sharks, including the basking shark and great white shark, is prohibited. To fish for blue, porbeagle, shortfin mako and common thresher sharks, a Federal Highly Migratory Species Permit is required. And for the most abundant shark in Maine, the spiny dogfish, people must adhere to an annual quota, as well as a fishing trip quota.
Great white shark
Last but most famous, the great white shark has been swimming in Maine waters for a long time, with increased sightings in recent decades linked to the steady increase in the state’s seal populations.
“They’re coming here to eat the seals,” Sulikowski said. “There are no population estimates for any of these sharks in our waters. But we know they’ve been around [in Maine] water for hundreds if not thousands of years.”
An adult great white shark averages between 10 and 16 feet long, with a maximum length of 20 feet. Scientists have studied its complex social behaviors and hunting tactics, which hint at intelligence and highly developed senses. It has been credited with more fatal attacks on humans than any other species of shark, due chiefly to its size, power and the fact that it feeds on marine mammals close to shore.
“We’re a coastal species too,” Sulikowski said. “Everybody likes to go to the beach and swim. It just so happens that animals live in the water, they have this predator-prey relationship with each other, and we can get caught in the middle.”