I met the New York Aquarium’s sand tiger sharks on a temperate day in October. They stuck out in contrast to their peers. Unlike the small frys roaming around other enclosures, the lumbering sand tigers possessed a menacing aura. Their tank lacked their neighbors’ vibrance, only further emphasizing their massive presence.
The sharks’ faces grew familiar as they swam by me. The animals passed through the same route, nearly brushing a fin against the glass. One after another, again and again. The cycle grew dull for me. As I peered into the glossy eyes of my new found fin-friends, I wanted to ask: Are you bored?
The general consensus is that the ocean, the watery behemoth in which the sand tiger shark lives, contains 352 quintillion gallons of water. In simpler words, the ocean is a billion billions gallons of water. A million million millions. This includes the whitecaps splashing around in the middle of chilly nowheres, the waves cresting onto sandy beaches on tropical islands–and the immense stretches of open water in which the sand tigers travel. The beasts migrate over 600 miles each year. In a more impressive metric: 1,000 kilometers.
The species are globetrotters that have adapted to live in a range of different water temperatures and various biomes. They prefer to hang out near the beach, be it near the presumably trash-filled, beer-laced Atlantic waters of Miami to Australia’s show stopping–and increasingly bleached– Great Barrier Reef. You can find them in frigid Maine or slithering up and down the coasts of Cameroon. They call the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans home, and sometimes even the Adriatic Seas. Sand tiger sharks are everywhere, with seemingly no fixed point to call home.
They have other names, too. Gray “nurse” shark, affectionately; spotted “ragged-tooth” shark, cruelly; and “blue-nurse sand tiger” shark, somewhere between the two. Carcharias taurus on the dotted line. It keeps the word “tiger” in its name despite not being related to the regular tiger shark, Galeocerdo cuvier.
It’s a creature somewhere between 90 and 112 million years old, somewhere in the Cretaceuous period. Despite being ancient, fascinating fish, they are best described as ugly bastards. No Renaissance painter’s brush could paint these guys as beautiful. Their bodies are hunched, dropping from a cartilaginous backbone into their snout into a gross jagged snaggle. The sand tiger shark is built like a horribly disfigured aquatic bulldog with a set of knives for teeth.
The New York Aquarium holds tubes of sand tigers and Atlantic sturgeons, who appear to cosplay as sharks, across the street from the wooden roller coasters and kettle corn stands of Coney Island. The aquarium’s primary shark exhibit, aptly named “SHARKS!,” is a daunting, 50,000 square foot building that contains most of the property’s sharks and rays. For some reason, the NYA threw the sand tigers to the wind. Their enclosures are far more exterior-facing than the smaller sharks swimming around in the SHARKS! building. There’s no protection from the outside elements, so you’re forced to stand in the cold, arms crossed against your torso in that shivery self-hug, to watch the sharks circle past the glass time and time again.
Marine biology journals have explained why it may not be in the best interest of sharks, especially large ones, to be kept in tanks for the general public’s amusement. More than enough documentaries have taught us that dolphins and whales deserve to be treated with some humanity, and New York lawyers recently took on a case to emancipate an elephant from a zoo under habeas corpus. But what could shark liberation even look like?
You can’t simply remove a shark from its aquarium tank and throw it back into the ocean. It would be no easy feat to transport an over 200-pound shark out of its tank-home, put it into another glorified glass case inside of a massive truck, and drive it to be dumped into whatever body of water it came from. Their breaths–if we could call them that– grow shallow when they’re flopped onto giant gurneys.
Sharks need water to breathe. Instead of lungs, their gray bodies give way to slits that suck in the oxygen from water as it filters in. The ugly pink interior puckers up when water dashes in and flushes out. There are two ways for sharks to breathe: sucking in water and pushing it through their cheeks into their gills in a method as buccal pumping, or through ram ventilation, which requires the shark to stay in a constant forward motion so that water can filter through the gills. Sand tiger sharks are special: they can breathe both ways.
When a shark needs to keep moving in order to live, swimming aimlessly has a real purpose. It doesn’t matter the destination or the length of the swim, what matters is that the ever important gills are taking in oxygen. But, if a shark doesn’t need to keep moving in order to stay alive, does it grow sick of swimming, swimming, and swimming some more? Do the endless stretches of ocean matter to a shark that doesn’t need them? Or, is a tank-bound shark doomed to a life of fatigue until it filters its last breath?
When a man recognizes his listlessness, he writes a novel about it. Then, the novel becomes a film starring Edward Norton and Brad Pitt. Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club is a master class in boredom-at-large. When the unnamed narrator falls far out of love with life, his imaginary friend Tyler Durden does the hard part of piecing together other distraught, deluded, downtrodden souls into their titular underground fight club. The ennui is solved with pairs of fists and cultish chants as man after man convinces himself that he’s finally free of whatever weighed him down before. Media tempts us with violence and the outlandish when we’re stuck in a rut, but are fish sold the same escape? Current shark literacy rates lead me to believe that the answer is no.
Some scientists, doctors, and animal lovers claim that fish don’t have the mental capacity to conceive of boredom, that their brains aren’t complex enough to sigh at the ins and outs of stagnancy. In the wild waters, sand tiger sharks might not even know that they’re living a bohemian lifestyle. The rows of coral and schools of fish might blend together like cul de sacs and Subarus in suburbia. A lack of exterior stimuli is not particularly consequential to a small-minded ocean fish when it must constantly remain on alert in order to stay alive. Who cares what’s out there, what matters is what’s at hand, or rather, fin. The goal is survival, not a meaningful life. If a sand tiger shark survives to adulthood, it has little to fear besides mankind–who shorten their lifespans in captivity, shrinking from thirty years down to fifteen. Out in the open ocean, the sand tiger lives a life of relative leisure, meaning it must be afforded a moment of downtime to find itself searching for a purpose.
Sharks can’t burn down a tank. They can’t slip up their sleeves and throw a left hook like Edward Norton. They have no knuckles to crack, just slippery fins to steer. I want to imagine that a theoretical bout of apathy is cured by profound conversations with tankmates and daydreaming sessions. Inside jokes jumping between species as they gossip about the stain on their caretaker’s outfit today. Perhaps, the sharks’ circles are just elaborate games of tag. They’re probably not. Groundhog day does not discriminate between species.
The reality is that living in a tank isn’t always great for a shark’s body. A shark should maintain a balance of actively swimming, moving forward with a beating caudal fin, and passively gliding, when the tail fin remains still but the body stays in motion. One study by scientists at the Florida Aquarium Center for Conservation observed the health and behavior of fifty-eight sand tiger sharks in various public aquariums across the United States. Smaller tanks had more unhealthy sharks, larger tanks had more healthy sharks. Regardless of tank size, these sharks were seen to be constantly swimming, taking nearly no time, if any, to merely glide.
The curve of glass–what turns a lap around the tank into a loop around the tank–is where trouble really begins. The Floridian scientists wrote that swimming in a repetitive circular motion can cause sharks to develop spinal deformities from the “lateral stress on the vertebral column.” The “repetitive and unvarying behavior” is seen as stereotypic, a behavioral type that can sometimes cause an animal to intentionally, or unintentionally, harm itself. Sharks are supposed to be swimming in complex patterns, having moments of gliding in straight lines and shifting their routes in different directions. In a tank, the sand tiger shark no longer lives in a fully-fleshed out, 3D world but rather a faded, 8-bit side scroller.
We don’t have to dive deep into the potential emotions trapped in the brain of the Carcharias taurus to find the answer to our questions of shark ennui. We don’t have to muse and prod and ponder to dig into the depths of the ocean. Captive sand tiger sharks’ are bored–their bodies have told us. Monotony is a cold, cold gun.