A Mississippi Aquarium veterinarian discusses Shark Week events and debunks misconceptions about sharks

Shark Week is officially underway and the Mississippi Aquarium is celebrating ocean predators in fitting fashion.

Throughout the week, the Gulfport Aquarium will be sharing educational material on social media and hosting a series of events on campus to teach more people about sharks. In addition to the “FINFacts” posted throughout the aquarium, other daily offerings include photo ops in the shark room and a shark-themed scavenger hunt. On Saturday and Sunday, the Mississippi Aquarium will team up with the University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory for its annual Shark Weekend, which will feature shark-focused activities for visitors of all ages.

Dr. Alexa Delaune, vice president of veterinary services at the Mississippi Aquarium, believes this is a great time to educate people about the different shark species and to debunk misconceptions surrounding ocean creatures in need of protection.

“We’re going to have a lot of different ways for people to learn about sharks. They can actually come here and see some of the species in real life swimming around,” Delaune said, noting that the Mississippi Aquarium has four species on site.

Shovelhead sharks are the smallest of the 10 hammerhead shark species. The one pictured above lives at the Mississippi Aquarium in Gulfport. Photo courtesy of the Mississippi Aquarium.

“Sharks are very, very important to the ecosystem and if we remove them all, everything gets thrown out of balance. So it’s important that we teach our visitors about sharks, share some really interesting and fun facts about them and get people to appreciate them and recognise that they are very important and we should do everything we can to keep them in our world.”

Delaune explained that without sharks and their role as apex predators, marine ecosystems would virtually fall apart, as sharks serve as an indicator of ocean health. Sharks support species below them in the food chain by removing weak and sick ones, which helps ensure species diversity when it comes to fish and other invertebrates.

He acknowledged that most news stories about sharks focus on attacks. However, Delaune said unprovoked shark attacks are less common than people think and that when a shark attacks a human, it is usually because it mistakes the person for a fish or a sea lion, or simply out of fear.

“When sharks are in the news, it’s usually because of something like a shark bite,” Delaune said. “It’s very sad and can cause very serious injuries or even death. But I don’t think sharks attack people intentionally. If you think about how many people swim in the ocean all the time, very few people are hurt.”

Delaune, who is one of the few shark veterinarians in the Gulf Coast region, said knowledge is power when it comes to getting into the ocean, and reminded people that humans are technically invading not only the home of sharks but also that of millions of other species when they choose to swim in the ocean. While she doesn’t discourage ocean activities like swimming and fishing, she believes Shark Week is a great time to educate yourself about what’s out there and how to take precautions when necessary.

“We just have to do everything we can,” Delaune said. “If you see sharks in the water, obviously don’t go in the water. If you’re fishing and you have a bunch of bloody bait, then be careful of sharks. Just remember that they’re doing what sharks should do. You just have to use common sense, be very careful and heed the warnings. Don’t go in after dark. Do all the things they tell you to do.”

“I think sometimes when you learn more about something that’s scary, you feel less scared if you know what to expect or you know how they might act or the kinds of places they like to be.”

Of course, Shark Week at the Mississippi Aquarium is paired with Discovery’s annual television block, Shark WeekWhile Delaune is a fan of the awareness the popular show has raised about sharks, she encourages people to watch the documentary-style segments instead of sensational ones like “Jaws vs. Leviathan.”

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