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5 Things I Learned about the Sandbar Shark

Sandbar sharks, like the one you see here, reside within shallow coastal waters around the globe—ranging from Massachusetts all the way to Brazil in the Western Atlantic. Here are 5 things a non-aquarist learned about this interesting animal at Greater Cleveland Aquarium.

1. This species of shark is considered an opportunistic bottom feeder. From small fish and crustaceans to octopi and stingrays, sandbar sharks don’t leave much off the menu.

2. The only predator of sandbar sharks are—can you guess?—other sharks! Juveniles will sometimes fall prey to larger species like bull sharks, otherwise there are few animals interested in hunting them.

3. Sandbar sharks only breed every 2-3 years and live anywhere from 25 – 30 years old. Researchers estimate full maturity happens around 13 – 16 years of age, meaning they reach true adulthood around the time you first learned to drive!

4. In 2020, the International Union for Conservation of Nature classified sandbar sharks as endangered, citing a 50 – 80% decrease in population over the last 75 years. However, management plans have been put in place and those regions are seeing populations begin to stabilize in the shallow waters they call home.

5. Sandbar sharks migrate seasonally, with juveniles often moving from shallow coastal waters to warm deep waters. Interestingly, males tend to migrate in large schools, while females make the journey solitarily with no company.

Look for sandbar, sandtiger and other species of sharks during your next Greater Cleveland Aquarium visit. Nature. It’s a curious thing.

Best Places to Dive: Cave of Elephants – Crete, Greece

Diver Ray Danner at Greater Cleveland Aquarium.In 1999, a daring spearfisherman in Greece named Manolis Efthymakis made a stunning discovery. While free-diving 30 feet down, he saw an opening in the cliff wall and did what most of us would not: he swam into it. What he found drew the interest of both the diving and the archaeological community.

Tens of thousands of years ago, the waters of the Mediterranean were low enough that animals walked into this cave, leaving behind fossils of a previously unknown species of elephant as well as a dwarf deer only 30 centimeters tall, or roughly three apples high. (A Smurf deer!) While many of the elephant bones, named Elephas chaniensis after the nearby city of Chania, were removed to museums, some things were left behind to attract divers to this cavern wonder.

The underwater entrance leads to a 100-foot-long tunnel large enough for divers to swim side by side until they reach a cavern filled with red-colored stalagmites and stalactites. Pitch black except for flashlights, divers then tread water to take in the views and pose for photographs while being careful not to kick one of the stalagmites growing beneath their fins. The swim back through the tunnel is notable for the eerie blue glow of the triangular opening back into the Mediterranean Sea.

I had the opportunity to explore this site in 2018 on a family trip to Greece. It followed what was initially a disappointing dive. The northwest corner of Crete, the largest of the Greek islands, is a rocky and arid environment. The town closest to the dive site, Kokkino Chorio to the south, was used in the filming of Zorba the Greek. Our first dive was totally devoid of any life except for a small silver fish we helped free from an old fishing net. The second dive into the cave was incredibly memorable and has been noted as one of the best cave dives in the world, although that is somewhat misleading as there are breathable air pockets within the cave, you’re always within site of the entrance, and there is no sediment to kick up on the bottom that might obscure vision underwater. It’s perhaps more accurate to call it a cavern dive.

Although we did not see any other signs of life on our dive, the waters around Crete and the Cave of Elephants itself is often a refuge for the Mediterranean Monk Seal (Monachus monachus) which is a critically endangered species of seal with fewer than 600 surviving members around the world.

 

Cave of Elephants is the fifth in our weekly series of the Aquarium dive team’s favorite dive locations. Stay tuned for the rest of our list or suggest somewhere new we might want to explore.

 

  • Ray D.

 

 

Best Places to Dive: Cenote Dos Ojos, Quintana Roo, Mexico

Diver Matt B. at Greater Cleveland Aquarium.A shade over 66 million years ago, a six-mile-wide meteor came screaming out of the heavens at 12 miles per second and a 60-degree angle to the surface of the Earth, which is kind of a worst-case scenario angle in terms of plunging chunks of space rock. It absolutely pulverized the impact zone with the force of a 100 million megaton bomb, creating tsunamis hundreds of feet high and flinging rocks half a continent away. For non-avian dinosaurs, the impact marked the end of an era. Literally. This is where the Mesozoic Era ended, and the Cenozoic began—the infamous K-T Extinction that eliminated roughly 80 percent of all species on the planet.

We know this hurtling chunk of death as the Chicxulub Meteor, named after the Mexican town at the center of its crater, which lies at the northern end of the Yucatan Peninsula along the Gulf of Mexico. The dinosaurs may have nothing to recommend the Chicxulub Meteor, but humans have reaped the benefits; the Cenozoic kicked off the “Age of Mammals” where Homo sapiens flourished.

The Yucatan Peninsula, that large thrust of land that sticks out northeast from Central America and divides the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea, has a truly unique geology. It is a flat slab of limestone with 1,000 miles of shoreline that is completely devoid of surface water. There are no rivers, bridges or lakes in northern Yucatan. Instead, brittle limestone cracks and fissures drain rainwater from the surface into a vast underground river system that stretches for hundreds of miles.

Cenotes, or sinkholes, dot the surface and provide access to the underground waterways. The ancient Mayan civilization relied on cenotes for potable water and regarded them as sacred wells, building cities, like Chichen Itza, around these gateways to the underworld and placing offerings to the gods in them, occasionally in the form of human sacrifices.

Two of our staff divers, Matthew Ballish and Stephanie Quinn, have journeyed to the popular Dos Ojos Cenote to explore what lies beneath. Dos Ojos, from the Spanish “Two Eyes,” is north of Tulum in the state of Quintana Roo and refers to a pair of cenotes (blue eye and black eye) that connect into a large cavern below. Snorkelers can swim in the crystal-clear water at the surface, while scuba divers follow two lines (known as the “Barbie Line” and the “Bat Cave”) through pitch black tunnels studded with stalagmites and stalactites.

Matthew, who has been the Greater Cleveland Aquarium Assistant Dive Safety Coordinator for eight years and has more than 600 dives in his 36 years of experience, was drawn to Dos Ojos because of its proximity to the cities along the Riviera Maya, allowing him easy access while on vacation to a great dive spot. Though there are more than 6,000 cenotes across the Yucatan Peninsula, Stephanie and her husband found that the wealth of information available about Dos Ojos and the easy access made it an ideal spot to explore these ancient gateways.

Formal exploration of Dos Ojos began recently in 1987, and in 2018 an access point was found to the much larger Sistema Sac Actum, making the entire system the longest underwater cave system in the world.

Free of particulate matter as the rainwater filters through the limestone, the waters of the cenotes are amazingly clear and their temperature stays a constant 77° F year-round. The depth isn’t more than 33 feet in the cavern, and though there are few fish, divers will find signs of life at the aptly named “Bat Cave.”

“Underwater, you’ll see pieces of fruit tossed aside by the bats,” Matthew remembers. “When you surface to look at the bats above your head, you’ll be happy you have a mask on . . . the odor is powerful.”

 

Cenote Dos Ojos  is the third in our weekly series of the Aquarium dive team’s favorite dive locations. Stay tuned for the rest of our list or suggest somewhere new we might want to explore.

 

 –Ray D.

 

Best Places to Dive: Neptune Memorial Reef, Key Biscayne, Miami, Florida

Diver Damon at Greater Cleveland Aquarium.When Greater Cleveland Aquarium Diver Damon Johnson swam with his first eagle ray in the Atlantic Ocean a few years ago, it was at one of the more unusual dive sites in the world. Neptune Memorial Reef, which will be the largest man-made reef in the ocean once it’s completed, offers people an opportunity to mix the cremated remains of their loved ones into the cement structures that make up the reef.

Just over three miles off the Atlantic Coast of Key Biscayne (south of Miami, Florida), and 40 feet underwater, plans for Neptune Memorial Reef show it eventually covering 16 acres of ocean floor and including more than 250,000 memorials to both humans and their beloved pets. It already has at least one famous resident—celebrity chef Julia Child.

Although far from finished, the reef is already transforming the underwater environment. The bases, pillars and arches are engineered to support marine life in all its forms. Coral and other benthic animals grow on the texture of the base and pillars, and the arches have holes where prey animals can hide from predators. A recent survey showed hundreds of species including bluehead wrasse, sergeant majors, barracudas and pufferfishes. Crabs, lobsters and sea urchins can be found in the crevices and of course, as Damon and his father discovered, divers might even find a majestic eagle ray, which can have a wingspan up to ten feet. The bevy of life swimming amongst the cremated remains is perhaps perfectly summarized by Neptune’s motto “creating life, after life.”

 Damon has been diving since 2019. His father got certified soon after and they found that they enjoyed diving the warm, turquoise South Florida waters together. He and his father are now both certified advanced divers and look forward to diving Dubai in the near future.

Neptune Memorial Reef is the second in our weekly series of the Aquarium dive team’s favorite dive locations. Stay tuned for the rest of our list or suggest somewhere new we might want to explore.

 

-Ray D.

 

 

 

 

Best Places to Dive: Forfar Field Station, Andros Island, Bahamas

Diver Steph Q with a sand tiger shark at the Aquarium.We dive for a variety of reasons. To commune with nature, to unwind, to explore. Our “pale blue dot,” as astrophysicist and author Carl Sagan pointed out, is just a “very small stage in a vast cosmic arena,” but perhaps by diving in we can learn to better appreciate that fragile ecosystem largely invisible to us as we commute between school, work and the grocery store in our busy daily lives.

Greater Cleveland Aquarium diver Stephanie Quinn took a formal approach to learning about our dot when she enrolled in a study abroad program during her senior year at Ohio University. Stephanie and her future husband spent a week at the Forfar Field Station, an educational and scientific non-profit organization that has served as a resource to over 50,000 thousand students ranging from middle school to graduate students and researchers. Most field study trips last a week and involve groups of 10-45 students with a focus on marine science, geology, botany, climate change or other scientific fields including social science. Imagine a classroom along the shoreline where students put their learning to the test by plunging into their environment.

“Forfar Field Station is a rustic former dive resort nestled in a beachfront coconut grove on the east coast of Andros Island,” according to their website. The largest of the Bahamian islands, Andros is host to rich diving opportunities for the students, including “coral reefs, offshore cays, sea grass beds, sandbars, blue holes, subtropical terrestrial habitats, Bahamian settlements and more.” The waters nearby are filled with colorful reef fish, including blue tang, angelfish, parrotfish and butterflyfish.

“It was the best diving,” Stephanie recalls. “Crystal clear water. Great biodiversity. We dove both there (Forfar Field Station) and Small Hope Bay during our study abroad. We then went back to Small Hope Bay for our honeymoon.”

Stephanie joined the Aquarium’s dive team in 2015 and has been a certified diver for 22 years. She lost her logbook, but estimates she has roughly 75 dives outside of the Aquarium. According to Aquarium Assistant Dive Safety Coordinator Matthew Ballish, she has more than 1350 dives in the habitats here.

Sagan, in his well-known speech, said that astronomy was a humbling experience. “To me,” he said, “it underscores our responsibility…to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.” These words were meant for the study of the stars but could apply just as well to those that look under the sea.

Forfar Field Station is the first in our weekly series of the Aquarium dive team’s favorite dive locations. Stay tuned for the rest of our list or share your favorite place to dive with us.

– Ray D.

Best Places to Dive? We Know a Few

Diver Ray Danner.Scuba diving and Cleveland, Ohio . . . sort of go together like peanut butter and monkey wrenches, right? I challenge you to find one of those “101 Places to Dive Before You Die” books with a cover that isn’t turquoise, tropical and filled with colorful reef fish. And yet Cleveland has its own extensive dive community. Lake Erie, the shallowest of the Great Lakes, has hundreds of shipwrecks to explore and is serviced by several dive shops that teach classes, sell gear, and organize trips all over the world. Northeast Ohio is home to around 4.5 million people and an untold amount of scuba divers who love to explore the waters in their own backyard as well as adventure to distant places to see what there is to see in the 70% of our planet that is underwater.

“What is your favorite place to dive?” is usually the first question posed to a diver. Could there be a better place to ask that question than of the staff at Greater Cleveland Aquarium? Not to toot our own horn, but we pack a ton of dive experience into the historic Powerhouse.

The Aquarium currently has 25 divers on staff; that’s not just the dedicated dive team members but also diver-certified aquarists, Life Support Systems staff and some of the Guest Experience folks regularly answering your animal questions. The numbers are dizzying. We did 1,265 dives in 2022 totaling 99,162 minutes. That’s almost 69 days or 10 weeks underwater. We could have watched Avatar: The Way of Water 5,204 times last year!

The Aquarium team has logged 22,246 dives since the downtown venue’s doors first opened in 2012 through the end of 2022, and we have well over 300 already this year. In fact, there’s a good chance that someone is underwater at the Aquarium as you read this blog post.

Best places to dive? Yeah, we have a few. I asked around and started a list. What follows will be a series of ten dive locations around the world as recommended by our team. Some are tropical, some feature shipwrecks and one is even under ice.

We hope that the discussion stirs a passion in everyone to explore the world while you can. There’s so much to experience and we love to talk about all the curiosities we’ve seen underwater. I think I speak for all the staff here when I say that we advocate for the protection of the species and environments that we’ve seen firsthand and feel there’s no better way to learn and love what’s out there than diving in and encountering it, face-to-face. I’ve been diving since 2017 and have been a Greater Cleveland Aquarium diver since 2018. I have more than 1,000 dives here and 65 or so out in the world, including the Florida Keys, Bahamas, Honduras, Niagara River, Tobermory and Greece.

So, if you see someone at the Aquarium and you’re curious, don’t be shy. We love to talk diving and follow this blog series to add some of our recommendations to your “must-experience list.”

-Ray D.

My 10 Favorite Guest Encounters

Neda leading school tourI was hired at Greater Cleveland Aquarium in November 2011 and with the exception of a COVID-related furlough, I have worked here as an employee ever since. I started off as a Guest Experience Associate—one of the welcoming team members stationed in our galleries to answer any and all inquiries about the animals or the facility. I then transferred to the Education Department as an Associate leading school tours. I was briefly an Education Assistant, which required that I book and schedule all tours, help develop and implement all materials for each grade and group that visits and collecting and processing payments. Eventually I took on the role of Office Assistant, and I have been doing the job ever since.

As I have had various positions at the Aquarium over its 10-year history, I have had a broad perspective of the organization and our guests. Here are my 10 favorite customer service encounters of the last decade:

  1. Leading a group of schoolchildren on a tour and having them make a shark fin on their heads to keep the group together and make traveling from gallery to gallery more fun.
  2. Convincing a guest to actually touch a stingray when they were initially terrified.
  3. Giving a school bus driver meticulous, turn-by-turn directions after they were re-routed due to construction.
  4. Laughing with a guest for more than 20 minutes on the phone. She called with purchasing issues and ended up as an annual Passholder.
  5. Slowly leading an extremely nervous young child to touch the Shark Gallery acrylic to prove the sharks wouldn’t hurt him.
  6. Finally meeting a guest that I had helped schedule a program for three years in a row.
  7. Watching a guest ask their significant other to marry them and taking pictures as part of our “Underwater Greeting” experience.
  8. Having an in-depth conversation about the history of the Powerhouse, the Flats and Cleveland with an older guest who had moved away from the city but returned for a hometown visit.
  9. Slowly walking through the Seatube with an adult who had a slight phobia about the space and the animals but was trying to overcome them both.
  10. Being an elf during the winter holiday and witnessing the guests’ excitement when they saw and heard Scuba Claus.

Neda International Talk Like a Pirate DayThere are so many more, but those are the ones that stand out in my memory. I must say that I look forward to countless more in my next 10 years!

–Neda S.

Reaching the 2-Million-Mark During 10th Anniversary Year

On April 26, Greater Cleveland Aquarium welcomed its two millionth general admission visitors, the Britt family. The Aquarium first opened its doors in the Nautica Waterfront District in January of 2012. Almost exactly a decade later, its curation team announced a major achievement—the rare births of weedy sea dragons, an event few aquariums in the world have witnessed. “These hatchlings were a great way to kick-off our tenth anniversary year,” says curator Ray Popik, one of five team members who have been with the Aquarium continuously since its construction. “This is a major accomplishment and we’re excited to document and share what we learn from the process with others focused on the care and conservation of this delicate species,” he says. Today the Aquarium is home to 3,600 animals representing 250 fresh and saltwater species.

2 Millionth GuestExhibit design has everything to do with the Aquarium’s success, both rearing sea dragons and in terms of the destination’s unique appeal but retrofitting a historic brick powerhouse with an aquarium is not without its challenges, explains Senior Maintenance Technician and Exhibit Diver Mike Gorek, another employee who’s been on board since “before there was water.” “Finding opportunities in the limitations and figuring out how to create viable, one-of-a-kind habitats from scratch the way we have with the giant Pacific octopus arch or the Tropical Forest aviary is a fun and rewarding part of my job,” says Gorek. Guests who have not visited Greater Cleveland Aquarium since it opened will discover that its galleries have been rethemed and only a single exhibit—the red-bellied piranha habitat—has not been reimagined in some way.

Species diversity, immersive décor, child’s eye-level exhibits and 360-degree views have solidified the downtown Cleveland attraction as a family friendly tourist destination which in turn has contributed to the growing vibrancy of the community, asserts Office Assistant Neda Spears. When Spears began as an Aquarium Guest Experience Associate back in 2012, there wasn’t nearly as much activity in The Flats and the adjacent Gordon Square, Hingetown and Ohio City neighborhoods. “Now there are any number of terrific eateries, breweries, shops, performance venues and trails for our team, guests and 15,000 Passholders to enjoy,” says Spears.

Hired in 2011, Dive Safety Coordinator Halle Minshall heads up team of scuba divers responsible for underwater cleaning, husbandry maintenance and guest engagement. While she loves being in exhibits with sharks and stingrays every week, she feels rewarded by looking out through the acrylic to see visitors making a connection with the aquatic world. “We encourage guests to consider how their actions can impact waterways and the natural habitats of some pretty amazing animals,” says Minshall. “I also hope we can share some of our passion for the water and inspire our guests to learn more about biology and marine science, and maybe even learn to scuba dive.”

While conservation and education are at the heart of the mission-driven institution, the two-million-mark doesn’t include 11,000 annual school students or countless special event guests. “We would have reached two million guests much earlier had it not been for the pandemic,” General Manager Stephanie White acknowledges. The Aquarium experienced a three-month COVID closure and nearly two years of limited capacity and timed entry to facilitate social distancing. “We’re grateful for the support of the community and very proud of the creative and dedicated team that has helped us weather the challenging times.”

Small Animal Feedings

During Spring Discovery Days, Greater Cleveland Aquarium focuses on the little things. That’s why created a series of short “mealtime” videos featuring some of smaller residents.

In this one, Aquarist Bethany gives the Surinam toads one of their favorite treats . . . earthworms. 

Here’s cellphone footage of Aquarist Seneca feeding an animal you might spot in Northeast Ohio parks . . . the yellow spotted salamander.

Sea stars eat in a way you might find odd. They extend their stomachs out of their mouths and envelop their food. Aquarist Katie fed a Bahama sea star and we sped up the video so you could watch this process. The food is partially digested externally, and eventually the sea star will pull its stomach back in through the mouth.

And here’s cellphone footage of Lando feeding frontosa, black piebald and daffodil cichlids.

Hungering for more? You never know what you’ll see when you visit the Aquarium.

–Curation