Shark Expert to Appear on Today Show Tuesday

TAMPA, Fla. (Feb. 7, 2008) –Next week, University of South Florida biology professor Phil Motta will help introduce morning news viewers to one of the largest, most dangerous predators in the seas.

Dangerous, that is, if you’re a piece of krill or phytoplankton. Human beings have nothing to fear from whale sharks as long as they stay out of their way, Motta said.

“If you get in their way, they would just see you as a nuisance and go right through you,” Motta cautioned. “It’s like getting hit by a bus.”

Motta, who has swum with these nearly 30-foot long sharks, will be featured in a segment about whale sharks on NBC’s Today Show, Tuesday, Feb. 12, said NBC News correspondent and USF alum, Kerry Sanders. The news crew worked with Motta, as well as scientists and divers from the Mote Marine Laboratory in St. Petersburg and the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, as they swam with the sharks off of the coast of Mexico.

The segment will include scenes from Motta’s Tampa campus laboratory as well as footage of Motta and other scientists feeding the giant sharks.

While whale sharks are the largest shark species, and hence the largest fish, they are not considered aggressive. Feeding off of krill, plankton and small invertebrates such as squid, whale sharks do not have the fearsome reputation as a “man-eater” cast upon other sharks, such as hammerheads and great whites.

Whale sharks are unique among plankton eaters in that they don’t have gill rakers to catch plankton and krill as it sucks in water that is later expelled through the gills. Instead, Motta said they have a filter that resembles a giant scouring pad. That filter traps the microscopic food before expelling the water. When the pad gets clogged, they simply cough and clear the pad.

“In order to time the rate of flow into their mouth, we would throw rice at them and time how long it takes to enter their mouths,” Motta said, excitedly. “It really is something to watch. They actually spit back out the handful of rice!”

Their size, their gentle demeanor and their unusual diet makes swimming the sharks a popular eco-tourist vacation attraction, Motta said. As a diver, Motta said he’s seen small seaside fishing communities in places like Australia and Mexico completely turn their economies around as tourists seek to watch and swim with whale sharks.

“I’ve seen in Holbox, Mexico where every other business is dedicated to taking people out to dive with whale sharks,” he said. “It’s amazing how this one animal can improve a whole town’s economy.”

- USF -