Marine Conservation, Research, & Observations

Sharks: Who is the Real Monster?

Sharks: Who is the Real Monster?

Sarah Caplan

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center



Sharks have become one the most feared creatures of the sea, but are these fears based on false representations of them? Or are they actually cold-hearted monsters who seek the flesh of humans?

Most people have seen the movie Jaws, where a rogue shark goes on a killing spree and the country is thrown into a whirlwind of terror. However, people seem to forget that fiction and reality are two very different things. Of course, like most books and movies that were inspired by true events, there tends to be a little bit of truth hidden behind the exaggerations. But is that a valid reason to fear sharks? It has been said that this movie may have been one of the main causes for the immense decrease of shark populations. For years, sharks have been considered one of the top predators, a deadly monster, and sadly, because of this very notion, their numbers are depleting rapidly. Are these creatures really as dangerous as they seem or have people erroneously made them out to be monsters?

The 1916 Jersey Attacks

There are many horror stories told about the dangers of the shark and their bloodthirsty instincts, however this is a rather new notion. Before the early 1900s many people believed that sharks were harmless. They were nothing more than an animal living off of the basic instincts of survival. The only real issue people had with these animals was their habit of bitting fishing hooks and eating the bait off of their lines. Otherwise, sharks and humans were acquaintances of the sea. It wasn’t until 1916, when a series of five shark attacks left the world in shock, that people initially began fearing of these creatures.

The five shark attacks occurred between July 1st through the 12th, thus being dubbed the “Twelve Days of Terror” for the state of New Jersey. The first attack happened in Beach Haven, New Jersey, when a 25 year old man, Charles Vansant, had his leg bitten by a shark and later died from the blood loss. The next incident happened a few days later, on July 6th, in Spring Lake, New Jersey. Charles Bruder, a hotel employee, went for a swim with one of his friends; he was mauled by a shark. When they brought him onto shore, he was missing both of the lower portions of his legs and had died in the boat, once again from the blood loss, before even making it to shore. Although both of those attacks occurred in the ocean, the next few happened inside a creek in Matawan, New Jersey.

Matawan was a small farming town a few miles inland, where the people would swim in the creek to escape the heat of summer. It was known to many as a quiet, peaceful town where not much happened. However, on July 12th, a young boy was playing with his friends in the creek when one of them, Lester Stillwell, never came back up from the water. The children he was with began screaming about the shark they had seen drag Lester under the water, when everyone showed up at the bank. A young man named Stanley Fisher then dove into the water to try and find the boy’s body. As he was coming back up with the remains, he was then also attacked by the shark. He made it from the water alive and was transported to a hospital that day, however he died that same night due to the injuries.

The fifth attack occurred about a half a mile away from where Lester Stillwell and Stanley Fisher were attacked. Joseph Dunn and a few other boys were playing in the water, when Joseph felt something bite him. He began screaming, which warned his friends and brother that something wasn’t right. They tried to pull him out of the jaws of the shark, but to no prevail.  A few minutes later a local fisherman came over and successfully got him out of the water. He was the only person to survive any of these five attacks.

The World in 1916

It is, however, important to understand the state of the country and world, at the time of these attacks. In 1916, the United States was in the midst of turmoil. It was the third year of World War One, the president was working to his highest degree, and there was a serious polio epidemic threatening the lives of people. The only escape people had from the problems of the world was the shore. Some saw the ocean as curative, while others just enjoyed the idea of sitting back and relaxing next to the waves of the Atlantic. However, now their haven was being threatening by the creatures that lived in it, so panic was at an all time high.

When the first attack occurred, there was a great initial shock, however within a few days, the talk had died down and people continued with their lives. Even the newspapers and magazines were extremely hesitant to cry “shark” for the fear of making the panic even greater. They used words like “fish” or wrote that the shark was after the dog and not the person. They were doing their best to under exaggerate the incident and maintain the little calm they had left in the United States. By the second attack, people were beginning to worry a little more. Newspapers from the east coast to the west coast reported on the incident. The idea of sharks going on a killing spree were slipping into their minds, however it still didn’t stop people from going into the ocean. But by the last three attacks, where the sharks weren’t just in the ocean now, but a freshwater creek, the country was in full blown panic. These attacks began the initial scientific interest of sharks, as well as the hobby of shark hunting.

A Scientific Year

At this time, there was little known scientific information about sharks and their behavioral habits. Even after these attacks, people were quick to decide that these animals were soulless creatures. This was the first time that people were really aware of the shark’s existence, they understood that these creatures were alive but reported shark attacks were rare. Scientists also questioned whether a shark was even the culprit to these attacks, theorizing that it could have been an Orca or a group of sea turtles. Dr. Frederic Lucas, the director of The American Museum of Natural History, commented that “No shark could skin a human leg like a carrot, for the jaws are not powerful enough….” Even when people began hunting these creatures and displaying them for the world to see, some were not convinced that the animals were even sharks. Although these attacks were a terrible tragedy, they seem to have a started a new interest and fascination in the world beneath the ocean.

Great White or Bull?

To this day, there is still controversy over what kind of shark actually attacked these five people. A few days after the last incident in Matawan, a Great White Shark was “accidentally” caught off Raritan Bay, New Jersey. After cutting the creature open, what appeared to be human remains were found inside the stomach. The two men, Michael Schleisser and John Murphy, who caught the shark, were quick to assume this was the shark that attacked the five people and quickly set off to display it for the country. As years passed, however, more and more evidence began to disprove the possibility that this was the shark. There have been a few books that state the idea that a bull shark was probably the creature that attacked the three people in Matawan Creek.

Bull sharks have been seen in many lakes throughout the world because they are one of the only sharks who can swim in both freshwater and saltwater. Most sharks don’t have the ability to adapt from one environment to the other, however bull sharks use osmoregulation. This is when a creature can keep a constant concentration of water flowing through their body without their weight changing. Most sharks would end up absorbing too much water into their membranes, while losing the salt that they were consistently gaining from their environment, thus essentially killing them. However, bull sharks have somehow adapted to the changes throughout time, making them capable of living in any body of natural water. With this information, as well as their aggressive nature and tendency to eat anything in sight, scientists believe this may have been the kind of shark that was in the creek.   

To this day, many scientists are still unsure of who the real culprit was and they may never really know. There was such little scientific evidence left after these attacks, that finding out what kind of shark actually killed these people is impossible. For a long time people believed it was one rogue shark going on a killing spree, however it’s also been theorized that it was a few different sharks. It seems that in this case, the more we research, the less we actually know.  


As stated previously, these shark attacks seemed to have started a scientific revolution. People began studying these creatures more; searching for the ultimately unexplainable answer to why these shark attacks even occurred. The rogue shark theory has never been but that, a simple theory, with no real evidence to back it up. However, it did prove useful to one of the most well-known movies and books that this country has known, Jaws. In 1974, after hearing about a shark hunter, Frank Mundus, who had caught a 4,500 pound Great White, the author, Peter Benchley, decided to write about this theory. Although, he explained in an interview that the book was not inspired by the 1916 attacks, there are many who believe it was. The book may not have been directly inspired by what happened in 1916, however it is possible that they had a lot of influence on what we think happens during real shark encounters.

For those who don’t know, Jaws is about a rogue shark who terrorizes a small resort town in New York on fourth of July weekend. Although the story of Jaws was not initially inspired by the attacks of 1916, the story may never have been told had the attacks not happened. Frank Mundus, Benchley’s inspiration for the character Quint, started going on shark expeditions to attract customers when he was younger. He called the trips “monster hunting” in order to peak more of an interest in people. This essentially helped him build his career as a well-known fisherman. After the attacks, people’s interest in sharks were at an all time high. They would stand in line for hours and pay, granted at the time it was only a few cents, just to take a look at a shark’s carcass. This would continue for years and is still remotely true today. However, now we can just go to an aquarium and watch the living thing in safety.  

Before Jaws and after the 1916 attacks, people were more curious about these animals than scared. They wanted to know more about the creatures, however at somewhat of a distance or surrounded by the comfort that the animal was no longer dangerous or alive. There was still some animosity towards sharks, but it was more the mystery that scared them. Before, sharks were almost like the bigfoot of the sea, they understood the reality of them, however not many people had seen them in real life. Once there was hard evidence, people became more and more interested in what these animals were capable of, as well as what exactly they were.

On June 20th, 1975, Steven Spielberg released the adaptation of Jaws, which has been said by many to be the movie that changed part of our culture. After this movie was released the crowds seemed to be filled with a mixture of dread, fear, and fascination. Many people were scared to go into the ocean, while some relished in the idea of swimming with danger. This movie started a fad that is still prevalent with movies today. From Sharknado and Jersey Shore Shark Attack to Pirahna and Snakes on a Plane; Jaws started a new movie concept that has stuck with the movie industry for decades now. A lot of people tend to enjoy the fear inducing rush that animal attack movies have, however they don’t really understand the consequences that also follow.

Jaws may have become one of the new movie fads, however, it has also caused a huge danger to the shark populations. After the movie was released the fear and fascination that followed became somewhat dangerous to the animals. After the 1916 attacks people began hunting sharks like crazy, the need for revenge seemed to swarm the psyches of many people. However, Jaws seemed to turn that revenge into a game. The idea of shark hunting went from a need for justice to a need to prove a person’s strength and manhood. People began to think hunting sharks was sexy, a way to rid the oceans of the “beasts” that inhabit them without seeing a real problem with the murder of thousands of innocent animals. This is not to say that shark hunting wasn’t prominent before the movie, however. Jaws just created a more justified reason for people to go out and slaughter these creatures as much as they want. We are now losing around 100 million sharks a year, mostly caused by the overfishing of these creatures due to people’s fascination, hunting, and need for their fins. At this time, there are around 465 species of sharks that have made the endangered lists, many of which were caused by over hunting. However, there is some hope for the animals, yet. Since the immense depletion of their populations, there have been a few attempts to save these animals from extinction or endangerment.

Shark Preservation  

In many countries, sharks are a huge source of income. Shark lovers from all over the world travel to specific areas, where there is a great known shark population and spend money to study, swim, and watch these creatures in their natural habitat. This has initially helped create certain regulations and laws, which specifically protect these animals. From banning shark finning to creating certain safe spaces for the animals or “shark sanctuaries”, the protection of these creatures has begun. They have also changed certain fishing gear regulations so that sharks are less likely to be caught by accident. Shark fin soup used to be a delicacy in Asian countries, it required the hunting of thousands of sharks, most of which simply have their fins cut off and then the body is thrown back into the ocean. This method of fishing has infuriated many conservationists, which eventually led to the ban on shark fin soup at many restaurants, hotels, and official government functions.


Edward O. Wilson, a sociobiologist, once said “We’re not just afraid of predators, we’re transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and chatter endlessly about them, because fascination creates preparedness, and preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal sense, we love our monsters.” Like any creature who has the potential to kill us, we have a tendency to mark them as the enemy. Telling horror stories and causing an unnecessary hatred, one that we were not initially born with. Sharks and humans once lived together in peace, however in a series of 12 days, these creatures had become one of our greatest enemies. There may always be a sense of fear that lingers when the word shark is shouted or an ominous “duh duh duh duh” in the back of a person’s mind when they head into the water, however people must remember that we create the monsters. We fear the unknown, we fear the mystery, however is that fear really worth losing 100 million creatures every year? Should the whole population receive the consequences of the actions of one or two sharks? If that is the case, who is the real monster in this situation?  



  1. Fairclough, Caty. “Shark Finning: Sharks Turned Prey.” Ocean Portal | Smithsonian, Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, 11 May 2017,
  2.  “2 Weeks, 4 Deaths, and the Beginning of America’s Fear of Sharks.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 28 July 2017,
  4. “How a Century of Fear Turned Deadly for Sharks.” #FloridaMuseumScience, 22 Apr. 2017,

The Water Quality in Cape May, New Jersey and its Effects on Bottlenose Dolphins

The Water Quality in Cape May, New Jersey and its Effects on Bottlenose Dolphins

The Water Quality in Cape May, New Jersey and its Effects on Bottlenose Dolphins

Mary Jacketti

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center, University of Miami



The purpose of this study was to determine if the Atlantic Ocean or Delaware Bay in Southern New Jersey was clean or polluted. We looked at different parameters of the water quality to see if runoff or carbon emissions had any impact on the bottlenose dolphins that return back to Cape May every year. When either on the American Star or the Atlantic Star, I would take samples of the water after every dolphin sighting. I used the tests strips to test the amounts of nitrites, nitrates, alkalinity, and pH of the ocean. The idea was to see if there was any unusual water quality data and if so, would it have an effect on the bottlenose dolphins. The alkalinity seemed to be the most unusual and changed most often. The oceans keep becoming more and more polluted and a lot more runoff is entering into the water. Even if the alkalinity and pH aren’t too low yet, they will in the years to come and will eventually have a large effect on marine mammals.


In recent years, the world’s oceans, rivers, and bays have been going through nitrification, ocean acidification, and aquatic hypoxia. Nitrification is the biological process that oxidizes ammonia or ammonium to nitrite and then to nitrate. Ammonia is produced from the marine life breaking down proteins into biological waste. The ammonia is then converted to less toxic nitrite from the bacteria in the water and then converted again to much less toxic nitrate. Ocean acidification occurs when too much carbon dioxide is absorbed by seawater. The excess CO2 reduces the pH and alkalinity of the seawater. Algae and seagrasses may benefit from ocean acidification because they require CO2 to live. However, calcifying species such as coral reefs, sea urchins, and oysters are becoming at risk. Hypoxia is the term that describes an oxygen depletion in the ocean, river, or bay. When the water becomes hypoxic, it is unable to sustain life and more and more parts of the ocean are becoming dead zones. Hypoxia can occur from limited vertical mixing of the 3 layers of the water. It most often occurs from too many nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous being dumped into the water or entering from runoff. Nitrification, ocean acidification, and hypoxia are only a few of the many problems that our oceans are facing.

I chose a research project that would be able to relate to the issues that the ocean is facing. I wanted to determine whether the waters in Southern New Jersey were clean and nutrient rich and if they weren’t, would the poor parameters have an effect on dolphin behaviors. The dolphins that we see in South New Jersey are Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphins. They migrate to Cape May every year during the warmer months to mate and give birth. On every dolphin and whale watching trip, we would record data on the marine life that we saw. Any time we would spot a dolphin, we would record any noticeable behaviors. This experiment entailed trying to see if there was a correlation between the water quality of the ocean and the dolphins’ behaviors and their feeding habits.

I expected to find the water in South New Jersey to be a lot less clean. I was expecting the nitrate and nitrite concentration to be very high and the pH to be very low. I was also expecting the alkalinity of the ocean to already be lower than average due to ocean acidification. The pH, nitrate, and nitrite concentrations didn’t seem to change too often and were what is expected of a clean saltwater aquarium. However, the alkalinity seemed to change more often and there were a few outliers. Overall, my theory was incorrect and the water was cleaner than I anticipated.


For this experiment, we took a sample of the water almost every time I was present for a dolphin sighting. These sightings occurred anywhere from the Delaware Bay in West Cape May, to the shores of Wildwood. The times that these samples were taken differed each day depending on if I was on the boat for the 10:00AM, 13:00PM, or 18:00PM trip.


The instruments that were used for this trip were a cut gallon sized apple juice bottle, string, saltwater aquarium test strips, a GPS, a data sheet, and the Atlantic Ocean/Delaware Bay. The apple juice bottle was cut in half to resemble a small bucket. A hole was cut in the bottle so we were able to tie a string to it. The saltwater aquarium test strips had small patches that measured the nitrates, nitrites, alkalinity, and pH of the water and would change color.


Every time there was a dolphin sighting, we would enter the exact start time, start latitude, start longitude, water temperature, and depth right away. Then, we would take photographs of the dolphins in order to get the best shot of each dorsal fin for photo identification. At the end of a sighting, we would record the end time, end latitude, end longitude, any significant behaviors the dolphins were displaying, whether they were feeding or mating, and how many calves and juveniles were present. However, after taking the photographs and before entering the data, I would quickly grab my apple juice bottle and throw it over the side of the boat, let the water fill up and then pull it back up. Then, the data was entered and afterwards I would quickly place the test strip into the sample of water. After thirty seconds, I would compare the color of the test strip to all the possible colors for each parameter. This same procedure occurred every time we would stop on a group of dolphins when I was on the trip.


The first graph shows pH and alkalinity at each sighting during ebb tide. Ebb tide is when the tide is going out and heading to low tide. The size of the circle represents the total alkalinity of the water from that sighting and the color of the circle represents the pH of the water. All of these sightings are close to shore, except for one that is farther offshore in the Delaware Bay.

This graph below shows the alkalinity and pH at each sighting during flood tide. Flood tide is when the tide is heading to high tide and slowly rising. This graph is the same as the first graph with the color and size of the circles describing the values we got from each sample. Most of these values are from close to shore sightings, except for a few offshore sightings in the Atlantic Ocean.

This graph below is a compilation of both the graphs above. It shows the total alkalinity and pH from every sample taken this summer.

The graph below shows the values we got for the nitrates, nitrites, alkalinity, and pH for every sighting this summer. As you can see, the nitrates and nitrites were consistently zero while the pH and alkalinity seemed to jump from value to value every sighting.

This graph shows the average water temperature, pH, and alkalinity from each sighting this summer. You can see that the water temperature steadily increased and the pH seemed to be more consistent than the alkalinity.



It is desired for the ocean to not have any levels of nitrates or nitrites in it. However, it is very unlikely for that to happen. Nitrates and nitrites mostly come from ammonia and all animals produce ammonia when they break down proteins. Rotting food and dead fish also produce ammonia. The bacteria in the ocean will then convert the ammonia to nitrite and then again to nitrate. The Atlantic Ocean and Delaware Bay most likely had some levels of nitrites and nitrates, but were so small they could not be detected from my test strips. If any body of water has too much nitrates or nitrites, it will make it difficult for marine life to live. Algae and other oceanic plants use nitrates as a source of food. If the algae have an unlimited amount of food, it will continue to grow. An excess amount of algae will cause a depletion in the oxygen in the water. This will in turn cause smaller organisms to die, then the smaller fish that eat small organisms will die and so on, causing bigger and bigger fish to eventually die. This can affect the dolphins because too much algae will eventually cause the bunker or crustaceans that they eat to die, causing the dolphins to starve and then die themselves. Dolphins recently have also been found to have high levels of nitric oxide in their breath more after eating than after fasting for 12 hours. Having higher levels on nitric oxide in the bottlenose dolphins’ breath was also linked to having shorter breath hold duration. It is a good thing that the waters of Southern New Jersey did not have high levels of nitrites and nitrates in them so our bottlenose dolphins are not harmfully affected.

The alkalinity of the water every time we sampled it was in the “not desired” range. The ideal range for alkalinity in a saltwater environment is from 180-300 parts per million (ppm). The alkalinity was usually closest to 80 ppm, but there were a few times it got as low as 40 ppm or as high as 120 ppm. The pH of our samples was also a bit too low than desired. The ideal pH in a saltwater environment is 8.4. However, got 7.8 most of the time, while occasionally getting a value of 7.0 or 7.4. I believe the reason the alkalinity and pH were both too low is due to ocean acidification. Ocean acidification is when carbon dioxide is absorbed by seawater and chemical reactions occur that reduce seawater pH, carbonate ion concentration, and saturation states of biologically important calcium carbonate minerals.  Most skeleton and shells of marine organisms are composed of calcium carbonate minerals. Ocean acidification is causing a depletion in these minerals and therefore, affecting the ability of some organisms to produce and maintain their shells. This can affect oysters, clams, sea urchins, plankton, and coral. Like nitrification, ocean acidification will eventually have an effect on the bottlenose dolphins in the Southern New Jersey area. Bottlenose dolphins sometimes go to the ocean floor to eat clams and oysters and if acidification is harming the crustaceans, it is also indirectly harming the dolphins. Also, the food chain will be affected and the fish that eat the clams and oysters will not have any food causing a drop in their population and the same will happen to the dolphins. “Estimates of future carbon dioxide levels, based on business as usual emission scenarios, indicate that by the end of this century the surface waters of the ocean could be nearly 150 percent more acidic, resulting in a pH that the oceans haven’t experienced for more than 20 million years” (NOAA 1). So far, from the data that we collected, it looked as if the dolphins were not affected yet. They still seemed to be feeding at normal rates and holding their breath for longer durations. If the US and surrounding countries continue to emit high levels of carbon, the oceans are going to turn more and more acidic. Eventually, the dolphins are going to experience a depletion in their food sources.


Before starting this experiment, I was convinced that the waters around Cape May were going to be filthy and have high levels of both nitrates and nitrites due to runoff. However, I was very wrong. It eased my mind to know that a lot of rivers, bays, and oceans are still relatively clean even though the human population keeps polluting them. The water still contains high levels of oxygen and houses many healthy different species of marine life. For future research, I would like to assess if dolphins and other marine mammals are being affected in different parts of the world. Even though the Atlantic Ocean is clean in New Jersey, it may be a lot dirtier somewhere else. To keep the waters clean, we as a whole need to find ways to stop emitting so much carbon and properly recycle more of our garbage.


Gallant, Micah. “Nitrates and Their Effect on Water Quality – A Quick Study.” Wheatley River

Improvement Group, Partnership For Environmental Education and Rural Health,  

Kroeker, Kristy J., et al. “Impacts of Ocean Acidification on Marine Organisms: Quantifying

Sensitivities and Interaction with Warming.” Global Change Biology, vol. 19, no. 6, Mar. 2013, pp. 1884–1896., doi:10.1111/gcb.12179.

US Department of Commerce, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Hypoxia.”

NOAA’s National Ocean Service, 6 Oct. 2014,

“What Is Ocean Acidification?” PMEL Carbon Program,

Yeates, Laura C., et al. “Nitric Oxide in the Breath of Bottlenose Dolphins: Effects of Breath

Hold Duration, Feeding, and Lung Disease.” Marine Mammal Science, vol. 30, no. 1,

2013, pp. 272–281., doi:10.1111/mms.12037.

Shark Encounters of New Jersey

Shark Encounters of New Jersey

Arianna Nixon

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center, University of Tampa


The state of New Jersey has approximately 227 km of costal land, commonly referred to as the Jersey Shore. The Shore is known for its expansive and impressive boardwalks that contains: arcades, water parks, amusement parks, and plenty of shops to entertain tourists. Thousands of people flock to the Shore every summer to enjoy the beautiful beaches that New Jersey has to offer, with most tourists visiting from New York, New Jersey, or Pennsylvania.

With so many people venturing in the ocean every day, one would assume New Jersey has many shark “attacks”. In reality, shark “attacks” are incredibly rare. According to the Global Shark Attack File (GSAF) there have been 50 shark “attacks” in recorded history in the state of New Jersey. The phrase “shark attack” provokes a very powerful horrific, and bloody image. However, not all human-shark interactions that are recorded as attacks are the same. For example, one “attack” might result in no actual human-shark contact, while another one might be potentially fatal. Therefore, the term “shark attack” is very misleading to the public, creating a clear line between the victim and the villain. In reality, human-shark interactions are usually just random acts of nature.

Human-shark interactions are important to study, because they provide us with a glimpse into the sharks’ world. By understanding where and why shark interactions occur, we can help reduce the likelihood of them becoming dangerous. Places such as Florida or Australia have some of the highest numbers of shark interactions, resulting in them being traditional places of study. However, places like New Jersey attract thousands of visitors every summer. Understanding where these interactions are taking places, and why they are happening will help New Jersey maintain high numbers of visitors by aiding education efforts to tell visitors how to avoid dangerous interactions.

GSAF provides unlimited access to their incident log, because their mission is “to provide current and historical data on shark/human interaction for those who seek accurate and meaningful information and verifiable references” (Shark Research Institute, 2015). GSAF incident log provides many different types of data when available, including: date, type, country, area, location, human activity, human/humans involved information, injury, fatality, time, species, and source. The GSAF provides enough information to begin examining the human-shark interactions in New Jersey.

Scientists categorize interactions into different categories to better describe the nature of the interaction. Shark interactions have traditionally been separated into unprovoked and provoked attacks. A provoked attack includes incidents where a shark was caught, trapped, speared, injured, or in some way provoked to attack (Schultz, 1964). An unprovoked attack includes incidents where an “unprovoked” shark made physical contact with the human or their gear (Schultz, 1964). GSAF breaks down their data into four different categories: unprovoked, provoked, boating, and invalid. To be considered a boating incident, the shark must bite, or ram into a boat. Invalid interactions lack sufficient data to determine if the injury was caused by a shark, or the person drowned and the body was scavenged by sharks. For some cases, the evidence suggests that there was no shark involvement (Shark Research Institute, 2015).

According to the GSAF, New Jersey has had 50 different shark interactions. They are broken down into 25 unprovoked interactions, 13 provoked, 7 boating, and 5 invalid interactions (Shark Research Institute, 2015). Figure 1 shows a map of New Jersey and the approximate location of all 50 interactions. The latitude and longitude of the interactions were not given. Some locations were very specific, while other were very broad, such as just giving the county it occurred in. In fact, two incidents are not shown, because the only location given, was simply stated as “offshore”. Therefore, the locations shown are more of a general area, rather than an exact location. This is one limitation to the GSAF data. When available, the exact latitude and longitude should be recorded for any shark encounter. Therefore, from this information, it can be seen that all areas of the shore have encounters with sharks. However, it can also be seen, that Northern New Jersey has had a higher frequency of encounters when compared to Southern New Jersey.

The nomenclature of provoked versus unprovoked paints a very clear image. Provoked attacks are seemingly all the fault of the human, while unprovoked attacks are seemingly all the fault of the shark. This system of classifying encounters is focused on assigning blame for the interactions. Most unprovoked interactions are thought to be the result of shark feeding behavior. However, shark bites may be a result of random opportunity, interference with reproductive activity, defensive, or even if you trespass into the sharks’ space (Neff & Hueter, 2013). In actuality, very few human-shark interactions are the result of feeding behavior. Humans are not part of any species of sharks’ natural diet. This creates problems when determining if an encounter is provoked or unprovoked because the cause may not be easily determined.

Recently, new systems of classification have been proposed to more accurately describe the interactions between sharks and humans (Neff & Hueter, 2013). The term “shark sighting” is used to describe incidents where there is no physical contact between the human and shark. The term “shark encounter” is used to describe incidents where there is physical contact, but no injury. An example of a shark encounter would be a shark biting a surfboard, or bumping a swimmer with their rostrum. The term “shark bite” is used to describe incidents where there is minor to moderate injuries resulting from the shark biting the human. “Fatal shark bite” is used to describe incidents where the injury is serious enough that the human dies as a result. The purpose of this system, is to focus on the outcome of the incident rather than the motivation, thus creating a more objective look at human-shark interactions (Neff & Hueter, 2013). This nomenclature was used to reclassify the interaction provided by the GSAF. Table 1 shows the amount of interactions for each classification in order to compare the two different types of nomenclature.  

Nomenclature #1 Amount Nomenclature #2 Amount
Unprovoked 25 Sighting 0
Provoked 13 Encounter 17
Boating 7 Bite 23
Invalid 5 Fatal Bite 5
Total 50 Invalid 5
Total 50

Table 1: Amount of human-shark interactions for the state of New Jersey using two different methods of classification. Nomenclature #1 is the traditional method used by GSAF, while Nomenclature #2 is a more recent method proposed by Neff and Hueter.


The Neff and Hueter system of classification gives a very clear picture as to the outcome of the interaction. For example, it should be noted that 17 out of the 45 “attacks” resulted in no human injury. The original nomenclature did not allow any clear picture that almost 40% of all attacks did not result in any injury. However, there is no accountability for when humans do something stupid when using the Neff and Heuter nomenclature. For example, many of the interactions listed as bites, were a result of the shark biting a fisherman after they were dragged aboard a fishing vessel. In cases such as these, the bites were purely out of self-defense. Neither system of nomenclature gives a clear picture to these situations. That is why, I propose the use of a mixture of both systems to create the clearest picture possible. The Neff and Hueter method should be the primary method of classification, because it creates the clearest image of the reality of what these interactions look like. However, when describing an interaction, especially to the media it is important to accept blame when it is clearly the humans fault that the interaction was a negative one. Table 2 shows the same 50 interactions, reclassified to fit the newly proposed system. The nomenclature of unprovoked was replaced with unidentified, because the cause for the interaction is still unknown. These interactions could have been a result of curiosity, territoriality, reproduction, ect. While we don’t know why the interaction occurred, this does not automatically mean they were unprovoked. This word unprovoked places blame, when in reality we don’t know why the interaction occurred. However, the interactions with the distinction of being provoked, were a result of the humans unintentionally, or intentionally harming the shark. Therefore, the blame placed was clear and justified. This new system gives a clear picture as to what interactions are needed for further study. Provoked interactions do not require further study, because it was a random event. The unidentified interactions require further study, so that we are better able to predict, and eliminate similar interactions in the future.

New Nomenclature Amount
Encounter (Provoked) 3
Encounter (Unidentified) 7
Bite (Provoked) 6
Bite (Unidentified) 17
Fatal Bite (Provoked) 0
Fatal Bite (Unidentified) 5
Invalid 5
Boating 7
Total 50

Table 2: New Jersey human-shark interactions reclassified under a new proposed system of nomenclature of classifying interactions to more accurately describe what occurred.


When most people hear the phrase “shark attack” they assume that the result was death. However, a fatal shark interaction is incredibly rare. On average, only five people die from shark attacks every year (Handwerk, 2005). You are more likely to be struck by lightning, or killed by a vending machine then killed by a shark. Using nomenclature that expresses this is important, so that we can work to reverse the negative stigma that we have created against sharks. Figure 2 shows a map of the five fatal bites. An interesting thing to mention, is that four of the five fatal interactions occurred in 1916, all occurring in the span of twelve days. The fifth fatal interaction occurred in 1926. Therefore, New Jersey hasn’t had a fatal shark interaction long before modern medicine.

The biggest limit to our understanding of why these interactions occur, is a lack of data. GSAF is a compilation of many different sources. Unfortunately, many interactions occur with no scientists nearby. This means we are relying upon human accounts to be accurate and unbiased. GSAF reports the investigator or source for every shark encounter. This results in many gaps in the data. There are very few interactions that have even a guess of the species of shark involved. Additionally, the exact activities of the human are not always well reported.  For example, for case 1931.08.06.R, the source was the New York Times, and no information was given on the interaction besides the fact that it involved a soldier who survived. This makes it hard to establish what happened that lead to the interaction. GSAF has obtained all possible information on these interactions, however there are many gaps that makes it hard to make conclusions about any of the unidentified interactions.

Historically, sharks used to only be a product of superstition passed down from sailors as nothing more than a legend. In the early 1900’s, most people outside of Australia did not believe that sharks attacked people, even though there was evidence dating back more than 2000 years that sharks did “attack” people (Francis, 2012). The four fatal attacks in 1916 stunned Americans, causing a panic that had never been felt before in the United States. The film Jaws premiered on June 20, 1975, sparking a new-found fear of man-eating sharks (Francis, 2012). Unfortunately, we are still feeling the effects of this fear. The media can now rely on the presence of sharks to attract the publics interest, as long as they have a scary enough headline. Recreational hunting for sharks rose in 1975, with shark killing tournaments becoming increasingly popular (Francis, 2012). For example, there in an annual South Jersey Shark Tournament in Cape May where they compete to catch the heaviest sharks. Unfortunalty, our perception of sharks has always been one of misunderstanding and fear.

Humans are instinctually afraid of anything that we know little about. However, that does not give us the right to kill or harm these top predators. For every human killed by a shark, humans kill over two million sharks (Handwerk, 2005). We have allowed the media and others to dictate the language of human-shark interactions. It is clear that not all shark “attacks” are created equal. If we are going to change people’s fear into understanding, then we need to further understand what these interactions actually look like. The first step, is to change the language. Human-shark interactions need to be described in a way that accurately shows what happens without placing any unjust blame. The victims of many of these interactions were more than just the human. Sharks are victims of our misplaced fear, more than humans are victims of the rarely violent interactions.  


Francis, B. (2012). Before and After “Jaws”: Changing Representations of Shark Attacks. The Great Circle, 44-64.

Handwerk, B. (2005, June 13). Shark Facts: Attack Stats, Record Swims,. Retrieved from National Geographic.

Neff, C., & Hueter, R. (2013). Science, policy, and the public discourse of shark “attack”; a proposal for reclassifying human-shark interactions. Journal of Environmental Studies and Science, 65-73.

Schultz, L. P. (1964). Attacks by Sharks as Related to the Activities of Man. In Sharks and Survival (pp. 425-452).

Shark Research Institute. (2015). Retrieved from Global Shark Attack File :

A World of Plastic

Marine debris is any man-made solid material that has been directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed or abandoned into the marine environment (NOAA, What is marine debris?). 60% to 80% of all marine debris is composed of plastic (Derraik 2002). Plastics are lightweight, durable, and cheap synthetic organic polymers. This has allowed them to invade all aspects of our everyday life. The same qualities that make plastic useful also make them harmful. Plastic is lightweight enough that it is buoyant, resulting in long dispersal distances. Additionally, its durability results in it taking 500 to 1,000 years to degrade. Meaning that every piece of plastic made still exists in some form (D’Alessandro, 2014). Finally, its cheap nature results in exuberant amounts of plastic being used and manufactured daily. Unfortunately, the results of our plastic dependency are not pleasant for the marine environment

Massive amounts of plastics find their way into our oceans daily. Approximately 269,000 tons of plastic float on the ocean surface, while four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer cover the deep sea (Parker, 2015). The plastic found includes lost or discarded fishing gear, industrial, and domestic products (NOAA, Plastics). They enter the marine environment through improper waste management, littering on shorelines or at sea, and storm water runoff (NOAA, Plastics). 80% of marine debris enters the water through land-based sources, such as runoff or improper waste management. The other 20% comes direct from ocean-based littering (Clean Water Action, n.d.). Therefore, we are all to blame for the plastic entering our oceans, whether we live by an ocean or not.

The presence of plastic creates many negative effects on the marine environment. 267 species are impacted by marine plastic pollution worldwide, including fish, seabirds, marine mammals, and sea turtles. Fatalities can result from ingestion, starvation, suffocation, infection, drowning, and entanglement (Clean Water Action, n.d.). Marine animals and birds will consume plastic in various forms because they confuse them for food. This plastic can block digestion, accumulate in the stomach resulting in a loss of appetite, or even block airways of sea birds. Many species are highly susceptible to entanglement of marine debris, such as sea turtles or marine mammals. For example, young fur seals will roll in marine debris, tangling themselves. As they grow, they can suffocate, gain infections, or it can impede their ability to capture food and avoid predation (Derraik, 2002).  Unfortunalty, after they die and decompose, the plastic is now free to entangle its next victim. Plastic debris will also transport invasive marine species through ocean currents, including: bacteria, diatoms, algae, barnacles, hydroids, and tunicates. The arrival of alien taxa to a new area can create negative effects across ecosystems. Additionally, it has been estimated that 80-85% of the ocean floor is covered in plastic debris. Plastic inhibits gas exchange between the ocean and the sediment, creating hypoxic or anoxic conditions (Derraik 2002). Plastic debris negatively impacts all members of the marine environment.

Taken by Arianna Nixon at Sunset Beach in Cape May, – 2017

A new area of research in the world of plastic pollution is microplastics.  Plastics that are less than five millimeters long are considered microplastics (NOAA,What are microplastics?). One source of microplastics is the degradation of larger plastic debris into smaller pieces. Another large source of microplastics are microbeads. Microbeads are manufactured polyethylene plastic that are added to health and beauty products such as toothpaste and facial cleansers (NOAA, What are microplastics?). These microplastics will easily pass through water and waste filtration systems and quickly end up in the ocean. The threats of microplastics are still widely unknown, and is an emerging field of study.

The real question, is what can we do about this? Aboard both the American and Atlantic Star, we have created the Clean Ocean Initiative, a part of our NJ-Non Profit; Whale and Dolphin Research Center of Cape May. This means that we collect all marine debris found on all dolphin and whale watching tours. We use the collection as an opportunity to engage and educate all guests on the prevention of marine debris. The most common item collected include: balloons, plastic bags, and rope. However, the elimination of marine debris starts with us at home. The first things to do is to reduce, reuse, and recycle. Reducing our plastic use should be our first goal, especially single use plastic. The elimination of plastic water bottles, and plastic bags is a great first step in limiting our plastic use. When plastic use is unavoidable, reusing and recycling are additional steps to help reducing our impact.  The most important step to reducing our plastic consumption, is to spread the word to those around us. Educating others to do their part can help create an entire community of people working to reduce our footprint on the world.

-Arianna Nixon, Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center, University of Tampa

Works Cited
Clean Water Action. (n.d.). The Problem of Marine Plastic Pollution. Retrieved from
D’Alessandro, N. (2014, April 7). 22 Facts About Plastic Pollution (And 10 Things We Can Do About It). Retrieved from EcoWatch:
Derraik, J. G. (2002). The pollution of the marine enviornment by plastic debris: a review. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 842-852.
NOAA. (n.d.). Plastics . Retrieved from
NOAA. (n.d.). What are microplastics? Retrieved from
NOAA. (n.d.). What is marine debris? Retrieved from
Parker, L. (2015, January 11). Ocean Trash: 5.25 Trillion Pieces and Counting, but Big Question Remain. Retrieved from National Geographic :

Predator or Prey?

Predator or Prey?

For over 400 million years, sharks have greatly inhabited the ocean’s open waters. However, in a recent turn of events, their populations are beginning to decline due to human’s two greatest instincts; fear and food.

For a long time, humans and sharks lived in peace. The idea that sharks were mostly harmless and that they don’t actually bite people, was the popular belief of the time. We ignored them for the most part and they ignored us, however in 1916, everything changed. A series of shark attacks off the coast of New Jersey created a nationwide panic, that would soon get the name the “twelve days of terror”. Beginning on July 1st and continuing until the 12th, five people were attacked and only one person survived. This was not only one of the greatest tragedies of the time, but also one of the inspirations for the well known movie and book, “Jaws”. After these attacks, the distrust towards sharks began to increase greatly and thus started their very own century of terror for these creatures of the sea.

There are three main reasons shark populations are decreasing; shark finning, food, and the ongoing fear. After these attacks, people began to see these docile creatures as the fierce man-eaters that these animals are described as today. In a way, sharks became the bogeyman of the sea and everyone was out for their blood. These creatures, once apex predators, have now become the prey. For years now, their populations have been declining and are continuing to do so. It is said that we are losing around 100 million sharks every year, whether for food or simply for the pleasure of hunting them.

One of the methods for hunting sharks is called shark finning. This is when a fisherman will simply cut off the dorsal fin of the shark and throw the leftover body back into the ocean, usually still alive. Because of its cultural significance, the dorsal fin is the most expensive part of the whole body. In quite a lot of Chinese cultures, shark fin soup is a fine delicacy that promotes the status of the families, so their need for shark fins is incredibly high.

We had THREE more sightings of #Hammerheadsharks today!!! #Awesome day on the water! #sharkweek #sharkweek2015 #sharkweekeveryweek #capemay #newjersey

A post shared by CM Whale Watch & Research Ctr (@capemaywhalewatch_researchctr) on

In every ecosystem, there is a certain balance that is needed in order to maintain a successful and healthy world. However, with the decline of these shark populations, scientists are beginning to worry that they may cause torrential consequences for the environment, if it continues. Because of how complicated these systems are, one little ripple or disturbance could completely disrupt everything that the environment has sustained for so long. There have been a few conservation efforts, such as the “2010 Shark Conservation Act”, however, it is important that we make more progress if we still wish to see these creatures in the future.  

-Sarah Caplan, Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center

Roanoke College


  1. Fairclough, Caty. “Shark Finning: Sharks Turned Prey.” Ocean Portal | Smithsonian, Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, 11 May 2017,
  2.  “2 Weeks, 4 Deaths, and the Beginning of America’s Fear of Sharks.” National Geographic, National Geographic Society, 28 July 2017,
  4. “How a Century of Fear Turned Deadly for Sharks.” #FloridaMuseumScience, 22 Apr. 2017,

New Ways of Propulsion Discovered in Humpback Whales

Humpback whales have always been characterized by their large pectoral fins. In fact their scientific name, Megaptera novaeangliae, translates to “big winged New Englander,” paying homage to their nearly 15 foot fins. These fins are specifically designed to be extremely hydrodynamic, allowing for easy movement through the water, despite their size. They are so efficient, that many wind turbine blades are designed based off of these fins.

Photo credit: CMWWRC Database 2012

Their pectoral fins are often used in social behaviors known as “pec slapping,” which is when a humpback whale will raise its pectoral fin up in the air while on its back or side, and slap it against the water. This behavior is believed to be a form of non-verbal communication for whales, which can be seen on both breeding and feeding grounds. Though it is unsure why exactly humpback whales pec slap, but there are several hypotheses. One is that it is a way that the whale shows frustration, while others suggest that it is a playful behavior.

Logistically, it has long been thought that the pectoral fins are used for steering, something these 45 foot mammals do exceptionally well, especially when their size is taken into consideration. However, a recent study done out of Stanford University suggests that humpbacks also used them for propulsion.

Photo credit: CMWWRC Database 2012

Using relatively new video tagging technology, researchers were able to study the movement of these whales in an unprecedented way. They were able to find that the whales would occasionally flap their fins like a penguin would while swimming underwater. This flapping would cause a very short boost in acceleration for the whale. The researchers believe that this is not something the whale can do frequently, due to the fact that likely requires a lot of energy, but can be very beneficial to the whale if it needs to travel short distances very quickly.

They also suggest that this propulsion is highly beneficial when lunge feeding, which is when a whale goes through a bait ball in a short burst of swimming with its mouth wide open. Like all other propulsion, it was always thought that this lunge was created by the undulation of the tail. But this study shows that, in some instances, it may be caused by the flapping of the pectoral fins.

The study also notes that it is likely that humpbacks are the only species capable of using this flapping mechanism for propulsion, because they are the only marine mammal with pectoral fins long enough to create such propulsion.

-Andrea Jelaska, Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center, Wheaton College


The Importance of Oyster Restoration

Oysters are a bivalve species, which feed mainly on phytoplankton, algae, and other small particles within the ocean. They feed by pumping large amounts of water into their bodies. The water is then pumped over their gills, where it is then, trapped by the mucus in their gills, and then the food particles are transported to the oyster’s esophagus and stomach (Bay backpack). When oysters feed, they filter large amounts of water, which helps in removing pollutants, algae, and other small particles out of the water, and thus helping with the water quality in their habitat. In fact, an adult oyster can filter about 25 to 50 gallons of water a day (Robertson 2015)!
Not only are oysters great for filtering water, but they are also an important habitat for different kinds of fish, crabs, invertebrates, and sea grass! And, as many people know, are commonly harvested for food.

mage of aged, bagged oyster shell that is ready to be used as the hard substrate that the juvenile oysters will attach to during the process of oyster restoration.

Unfortunately in recent years oysters have not been doing as well as they once have. This is mainly because of over harvesting, disease, ocean acidification, and other changes in water quality. Along the east coast of the United States the main threat to the oysters tends to be water quality, and over harvesting. Oysters have been harvested for over 300 years in certain areas, and we are now beginning to notice the decline in oysters in these regions, as well as the deterioration in water quality (Oysters).
With the declining populations of these bivalves, oyster restoration is more important than ever. Oyster restoration is the process of rebuilding or restoring oyster reefs. This process involves taking clean oyster shell and juvenile oysters, typically raised in hatcheries, and trying to grow them onto the shell, so that it will have the hard substrate it needs to survive and grow larger (Technical Aspects of Oyster Restoration). Due to the over harvesting of oysters, it has become difficult for oysters to reproduce because many of the larger oysters that are harvested are the older individuals, which are usually the females (Oysters). This causes there to be less eggs for the oyster’s sperm to fertilize, thus creating less new oysters to colonize the reef.
Over harvesting, habitat destruction, turbulence, and water quality has also made it difficult for juvenile oysters to find another oyster shell, or another hard substrate to attach to, because of the lack of shells that are suitable for them to attach to. Many times after oysters are harvested and eaten, very little of the shells ever go back into the ocean. Many are simply thrown out in the garbage after being consumed. Oyster restoration helps with this problem by recycling used shell, and supplying clean and aged oyster shell, or sometimes other types of shell like whelk shell. Many times the shells come from seafood restaurants, volunteers in the community that collect the shell, or they are bought from fishermen.
The way many oyster restoration projects grow the oysters is by first setting the shell in a tank, and then releasing the juveniles that are just about old enough to attach to a shell. After a few days they will begin to settle and after a few weeks they grow larger and you are able to count how many oysters settled on the shells. Once the oysters are a little larger they are then released in what will hopefully become a healthy reef. Even after the oysters are released the reefs are regularly monitored to see how they are growing, and people are not allowed to harvest them in these areas, which helps with the declining populations as well.

Image of juvenile oysters under a light microscope, taken by Alex Blanchet with Stockton University

With the help of locals in our communities, scientists, and others who are eager to learn, help, and protect our marine ecosystems, oyster restoration can become a huge success. Helping with these projects improves water quality in the area, increase the population of oysters in the area, as well as eventually creating more biodiversity within the area due to the increased abundance of oysters and the quality of the water.

-Alexandra Blanchet, Stockton University

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center

Robertson, J. (2015, August 5). Ode to Oysters (or, Happy National Oyster Day!) [Blog post]. Retrieved from
Bay Backpack. (n.d.). How does an Oyster Filter Water? [Blog post]. Retrieved from
Oysters. (n.d.). NOAA. Retrieved from
Technical Aspects of Oyster Restoration. (n.d.). NOAA. Retrieved from
Other references:

Help Our New Jersey Sea Turtle Population

Onboard the American Star, we may encounter a Loggerhead Sea turtle (Caretta caretta) swimming in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean or the Delaware Bay along the coast of Cape May. These reddish-brown marine reptiles are the most common sea turtle to spot along the coastal waters of New Jersey. Although the Loggerhead sea turtle is considered threatened in all United States waters, Loggerheads found off the coast of New Jersey are classified as endangered. This is largely due to the digestion of plastic and other marine debris.

Loggerhead sea turtles are the largest of all of the hard-shelled sea turtles. They are known for their unproportionate large head and strong jaws. Adult male Loggerheads are much larger than the females, capable of growing to 33-49 inches long and weighing over 400 pounds. They can be found in waters up to 500 miles offshore in the continental shelf of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian ocean, as well as the bays, estuaries, river mouths, lagoons, and streams that connected to these larger bodies of water, but prefer subtropical conditions.

A sea turtle entangled in string. Follow link to photo credit.

After reaching sexual maturity around 12 to 30 years old, the prime mating season for Loggerheads takes place during March and April in the southeastern United Stated waters. The nesting period peaks in June, but the entire nesting season stretches from April to September, primarily at night during high tide. It is common for the female to return to the location where she was hatched to lay her own eggs. She gives birth to clutches of 45-200 eggs per session and can do so up to 9 times per season in 2 week intervals. These eggs will take 7 to 11 weeks to hatch. Incubation temperature of the eggs determines the gender of the hatchling. Warmer temperatures yield females while males are usually produced with cooler temperatures. Loggerhead eggs and hatchlings are susceptible to mortally due to predation, beach erosion, and flooding.

The diet of the Loggerhead sea turtle consists of dead fish and plants, as well as invertebrates such as crabs, mollusks, sponges, and jelly fish. The sea turtles are vulnerable to ingest marine debris that is often mistaken as food. Over time, balloons that make their way to the ocean lose their color and look similar to a jellyfish. The turtle will mistake the colorless balloon as a jellyfish, ultimately sickening, or even killing them. A study by Moreton Bay Research Center found that up to 100% of stranded turtles were found to have ingested plastic as a result of the rise of marine debris.

How can you help our New Jersey population? Next time you are at a birthday or graduation party, do not release your balloons. These balloons may possibly end up in our oceans and cause a threat to the Loggerhead sea turtles, as well as a wide variety of other marine life. You can also opt for biodegradable lanterns which have less of a harmful impact on the environment.

-Gianna Severini, Stockton University

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center



Effects of Marine Debris on Whales

 As many of you have already seen on the news or read online, far more than thirty sperm whales have washed ashore in Europe since the beginning of last year. Four of the thirteen whales found in Germany were discovered to have large amounts of plastic waste in their stomachs. The marine debris included a fishing net, a plastic car engine cover, and part of a plastic bucket. Many toothed whales often mistake plastic and other marine debris as potential food or prey and most baleen whales unknowingly ingest plastic debris when they are feeding. Most of the plastic that ends up in the ocean floats and stays there for a long time. Plastic bags are known to stay in the oceans for about 450 years before beginning to degrade. “According to the Marine Pollution Bulletin, cetaceans are ingesting plastic debris at a rate as high at 31 percent, and in turn, 22 percent of those cetaceans were at an increased risk of death” (Henn 2017). The reason that the toothed or baleen whales ingesting so much marine debris can be fatal is because it can lead to physical damage to their digestive systems. The obstructions caused by the plastic or debris can lead to tears or punctures in the stomach lining. Also, the obstructions in the stomach can trick the whale into thinking that they are not hungry, messing with the feeding patterns of the whale and in turn leading to malnutrition.

Two whales washed up near the resort of Skegness on the English east coast on January 25, 2016.

            There are many easy ways to help reduce the number of marine debris that ends up in our oceans and rivers. One of the easiest and most effective ways to help keep the oceans clean would be to recycle properly. Making sure that each plastic bag or bottle makes it to the recycling bin will not take much time out of your day. Also, reduction can play another big role in decreasing the amount of pollution in the sea. Using a reusable water bottle or reusable shopping bags can lessen the amount of plastic that will later end up in the oceans. Even just letting your friends and family about the effects of manmade pollution in the oceans can help because you are making them aware of our problem. Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center also does a great job informing the passengers on the boat by explaining to them what marine debris is and how it affects marine mammals. We also stop the vessel and pick up any plastic bags, rope, or balloons that we spot on the trip a part of our Clean Ocean Initiative. Make sure to always be aware of any pollution that you see and make efforts in reducing the amount that is brought into the oceans!

-Mary Jacketti

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center, University of Miami


“Sperm Whales Found Full of Car Parts and Plastics.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 02 Apr. 2016. Web. 23 June 2017.
Henn, Corrine. “These 5 Marine Animals Are Dying Because of Our Plastic Trash … Here’s How We Can Help.” One Green Planet. N.p., n.d. Web. 23 June 2017.

Why Dolphins Have Blurry Vision Under Water

 If you have ever been on a tour with the Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center, you have heard your naturalist explain that dolphins are mammals. They may swim and look like a fish, but they are not fish. Mammals have hair; they are endothermic; they produce milk for their young.

                However, there is one more characteristic that holds true. A dolphin is a not a fish for all of those reasons above, but another characteristic not listed is the dolphin’s eyesight. Oftentimes on a dolphin watch, one of the bottlenose dolphins will cruise by with its melon above water level. We are physically able to see their black eyes; and we know that those mammals are looking back at us with almost the same scope. Although these animals spend their lives submerged in water, their eyesight is best out of the water. When not submerged, a dolphin and a human have a very similar sense of vision. Underneath the water, a dolphin has a blurred sense of sight like humans do. That is why their extra sense, echolocation, is so important for these mammals.

                It struck me odd that an animal that spends their life in the ocean would have lacking eyesight under the water. It makes sense for humans, because humans are not evolved to spend large amounts of time underwater. It’s the same way that our hair is not aerodynamic, and our lungs are weaker than our marine mammals. So, why do these dolphins not have better eyesight in their natural habitat?

                The answer lies in the evolutionary course that not just dolphins and humans have taken, but life everywhere has evolved from. The very beginning of life began with bacteria; the bacteria that could sense light was the bacteria that survived on went on the multiply. Fast forward a few million years and life has bloomed into a vast array of different sea creatures; each generation with a slightly enhanced sense of vision until a masterfully crafter aquatic eye was formed. Fish in our oceans today that depend upon light to survive have eyes that have been evolving as long as life itself has existed.

                However, when life first ventured out onto land, it was not helpful at all that these creatures were equipped with eyes perfect for life underwater. Their sense of vision on land was atrocious; and evolution could not backspace on itself. Just because life was on land now, did not erase that it had been submerged for most of it existence. After that, every species that stayed on land were adapting away from the aquatic eye into a more sensible eye for land dwelling. The human eye itself is the product of millions of years of evolution away from the aquatic eye.

CMWWRC Database – 2013

                Remember, dolphins are mammals. Dolphins are not fish. The ancestors of both dolphins and whales were not always aquatic. Scientists believe that dolphins have evolved from an Eocene-era mammal called a Mesonyx. This was a four-legged mammal that slept on land but swam and hunted in open waters. So, dolphins have an interesting ancestry; they evolved from a species that eventually returned to the sea.

                Now, dolphins are sea dwellers; but their ancestors were not. They are not fish. Dolphins are mammals, and as mammals, they have lungs. They have hair. And fascinatingly enough, their eyes have not yet adapted back to the perfected aquatic eye. Instead, they have picked up another sense, their echolocation, that helps them “see” better underwater. Their eyes may never be as adapted to the water as the aquatic eye that fish have; however, we have no way of knowing which direction evolution will take our marine mammals in the future.

-Morgan Costello

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center, Stockton University

“Cetaceans.” Blue World. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 June 2017.
Hanich, Livia, Steve Holtzman, Bill Pope, Brannon Braga, Neil G. Tyson, Alan Silvestri, Carl Sagan, Ann Druyan, and Steven Soter. Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. , 2014.
Nilsson, Dan-Erik. “Evolution of the Eye.” Evolution: “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”. PBS. 2001. Television.