News & Politics

How to Relocate a Sandbar Shark

Have you ever wondered where the sharks in the National Aquarium come from?

Getting a six-foot, 150-pound sandbar shark to Baltimore’s National Aquarium isn’t easy. Like many sharks, sandbars swim to breathe, getting oxygen from water as it passes through their mouths and gills. Which means they can’t stop for long. The aquarium doesn’t need a new sandbar often—only two are in the collection, and they live about 40 years. Here’s what happens when a new one is brought in.

1. Every summer, members of a National Aquarium team take a boat out into the Delaware Bay. They use a chum basket to lure sharks to the boat and catch them with unbarbed hooks, which don’t hurt the animals.

2. Most of the sharks are tagged and released, but when the aquarium needs a new sandbar, the team hoists one onto a stretcher and puts it in a tank on the deck. Pumps circulate water from under the boat so it can breathe.

3. The boat docks at the University of Delaware Marine Science Campus in Lewes, where the team puts the shark onto another stretcher and rushes it to a holding tank.

4. For the three-hour drive to Baltimore, the team lifts the sandbar into a coffin-like “shark box.” Medical-grade oxygen is pumped into the water in the box, which circulates over the shark.

5. A 40-foot-diameter tank awaits at the aquarium’s Animal Care Center in Baltimore’s Fells Point, where the sandbar will stay for 90 days of medical tests and acclimation.

6. The sandbar is loaded into another shark box and driven one mile to the National Aquarium, where it rides an elevator to an acclimation pool behind the “Open Ocean” exhibit. Once settled, the shark swims through a latch door into the exhibit.

Fun Fact: Sandbars—like many other sharks—need to eat only two or three times a week, and they’re picky. Aquarium staff shop alongside local chefs at the seafood market in Fells Point for pristine rockfish, black bass, and tautog.

Illustrations by Chris Philpot.

This article appears in the July 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.

Food Editor

Anna Spiegel covers the dining and drinking scene in her native DC. Prior to joining Washingtonian in 2010, she attended the French Culinary Institute and Columbia University’s MFA program in New York, and held various cooking and writing positions in NYC and in St. John, US Virgin Islands.