The North Carolina Coast serves up an impressive line of shipwrecks, some sent to the bottom by storms, others by acts of war. But this coast has a second and equally thrilling attraction: sand tiger sharks. If you have never met a sand tiger shark, you really don’t know what you’re missing. These nightmarish-looking creatures featuring rows of sharp-pointed teeth protruding from their jaws like misshapen goblins, create a startling and seemingly menacing first-impression.
Yet despite their frightening appearance, sand tigers (Carcharias Taurus) – not to be confused with the tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvieri) – typically pose no threat to divers. While some sources still assign this species a place on the roster of the ten most dangerous sharks (ranking 9th), the veracity of this ranking is highly questionable. According to the International Shark Attack Files database, which goes back to the early 1900’s, documented sand tiger attacks on humans have been relatively few and far between. In total, ISAF records account for only 29 unprovoked attacks by sand tigers worldwide, with only two resulting in fatalities.
Even knowing this, divers are apt to feel a tinge of adrenaline the first time they come face-to-face with one of these snaggle-toothed beasts. Anxieties typically fade after a few minutes, however, as it becomes plain that the sharks are either wary of or disinterested in diver activity.
One feature I find entertaining about these large-body sharks, which can reach lengths of nine feet, is that the rest of their physique does not exactly match the body. Pectoral fins are short and fleshy, while dorsal fins are positioned fairly far back and closely followed by an almost equally sized secondary dorsal fin. Like the rest of the body, the base of the tail is stocky where it joins an asymmetrical caudal fin with a short ventral lobe.
Take away the head, and the frame on a sand tiger would compare to a mako shark in the same way a cargo plane would to an F-16 fighter.
As to how these animals earned the moniker of sand tiger, well, we can blame that one on marketing. Belonging to the Family Odontaspididae, sand tigers were originally called sand sharks. When this species was added to an exhibit at the country’s first oceanarium, the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, the promoters added “tiger” to the name, taking advantage of the shark’s fearsome dentition. Personally, I favor the South African name of ragged-tooth (a related species to sand tigers), or “raggie” for short as it is more descriptive of this shark. Australia on the other hand calls their version a grey nurse. Go figure.
Fantastic Sharks and Where to Find Them
Sand tiger sharks were once widely distributed along the Atlantic coastal waters of both North and South America, Europe, and parts of the Mediterranean, as well as southern Australia, South Africa, India, China, and Japan. Unfortunately, their numbers have been decimated throughout most of its range by over-fishing practices. To add insult to injury, the shark’s deceptively ferocious appearance has made them routine targets for overzealous powerhead-armed sport divers in the waters of Australia and South Africa.
The US National Marine Fisheries Service designated sand tigers as a Federally protected species in April 1997, as did Australia within the same year. As a result, sand tiger populations rebounded significantly along the North Carolina coastline between Nags Head and Hatteras down to Frying Pan Shoals making the region one of the best places to see them in the wild.
From Torpedo Alley to Sand Tiger Alley
A number of shipwrecks along the North Carolina coast have become prime sites for diving with sand tigers. Many of the best are reachable from Beaufort and Moorhead City, including the Papoose (aka W.E. Hutton), a huge freighter sunk by German U-boat in 120 feet of water during the war. Other wrecks in the area that attract sand tigers include the 409-foot cable repair ship Aeolus and the 180-foot Coast Guard Cutter Spar, both of which were put down as part of North Carolina’s artificial reef program. The upside with these latter two wrecks is that they sit in slightly shallower water with max depth of 110 feet. But my personal favorite for meeting these fantastic snarly tooth denizens is the is the wreck of the Caribsea on the western side of Cape Lookout. The Caribsea prowled the US coastline during the Battle of the Atlantic, like most wrecks created by Germany’s infamous U-bootwaffe (U-boat fleet).
You can read about these wrecks and others > here.
Today, the once substantially tall 261-foot freighter has been rendered down to basically an elongated pile of steel rubble with the Caribsea’s steam engine and two giant boilers now the highest points on the wreck, seconded by part of its bow with a giant anchor windlass mounted on top. Keep in mind that the wreck itself is not the main reason to come here.
The population of sand tigers on the Caribsea tend to not only be more numerous than most other sites they are also noticeably bigger. In addition, the wreck sits in 90 feet of water as opposed to the 120 foot depths of other popular sand tiger-laden wrecks.
The reason for this site’s large aggregations of sand tigers isn’t so much due to the actual structure of the wreck, but where it is positioned. One of the physical traits to the Carolina coast’s underwater topography is that the sea floor from shoreline out some 50 miles is predominately made of sand, and flat as a pancake. As a result, anything that provides some form of structure, such as a wreck, is an oasis in a desert for everything from huge schools of baitfish on up to larger predators like jacks, groupers, greater barracuda, and of course sharks.
The only downside to the Caribsea is that due to its position due east of Cape Lookout Shoals the site rarely benefits from the clear Gulf Stream waters that flow a bit farther offshore. Underwater visibility at the site fluctuates widely from 20 feet to 100 feet, but most days expect between 30 and 60 feet.
Scary Looking, But Incredibly Cool
When the water clarity is good, which I have encountered during a number of visits here, it is not unusual to view anywhere from 50 to 90 sand tigers slowing cruising around the wreck. When you witness this, you may also take note of something rather odd. Instead of actively moving about, the sharks tend to hover near motionless in the water column. How can they do that?
Here’s the cool part about sand tigers. Like all sharks, sand tigers lack swim bladders (a gas filled internal organ found in bony fish) that can make them neutrally buoyant in the water. In place of one, they somehow developed a unique strategy to go to the surface and gulp air, which they hold in their stomach, in the same way you add air to your BCD, to make their dense bodies more neutral at depth. This also explains what just happened should you see a sand tiger burp or fart as it meanders slowly past.
The animal’s lethargic mannerism as they travel through the water column using deliberately slow sweeps of the tail has fooled some into believing they are incapable of quick movements. But do something stupid like grab for their tail or spear a fish in their presence and you will find out how wrong that perception can be, as these sharks can in an instant go from 0 to 60.
But don’t take that as something to worry about. As many who have dived with these sharks will attest, sand tigers are somewhat of a pussycat and their behavior may range from idle curiosity to indifferent.
On viewing a sand tiger’s tangle of sharp, spike-like, teeth hanging halfway out of its mouth, the phrase ‘a dentist’s worst nightmare’ comes to mind. Seeing these sharks up close I have noticed that their tangle of teeth is often suffused with clumps of algae, with perhaps a gooseneck barnacle hanging off a tooth here and there. The reason sand tigers have this form of mouth grunge going on when other species do not is a mystery.
Here’s a piece of advice should the desire include getting a few shots of their gnarly dental work up close: making sudden or fast movements will likely drive them away. Instead, make your move as slow and deliberate as theirs. This way the shark is more apt to allow you to get close providing that opportunity for an awesome portrait shot.