Every week is shark week at Walt Disney World Resort, where you can see several shark and ray species up close!
Sharks and Rays at Walt Disney World Resort
Come marvel at these fascinating and primitive denizens of the deep as they patrol the waters at the massive aquarium of The Seas with Nemo & Friends at Epcot. Here, you’ll find white spotted bamboo sharks as well as sand, tiger, blacknose and brown sharks and spotted eagle rays. Feeling adventurous? Take the plunge and scuba dive alongside sharks and rays—and thousands more species—as part of the Epcot Seas Adventures – DiveQuest experience. Or, explore the same waters as you snorkel with the Epcot Seas Adventures – Aqua Tour.
Sharks and Rays in the Wild
There are over 1,200 species of sharks and rays found in a wide variety of aquatic habitats around the world. Most ray species and some sharks (like the blacktip reef shark) prefer warm, shallow waters and coral reefs. Species like the blue shark inhabit the open oceans, and some, like the wobbegong, prefer to prowl the cold ocean floor. Atlantic stingrays and bull sharks can thrive in freshwater and seawater—in fact, bull sharks have been found almost 1,700 miles (2,800 km) up the Mississippi River!
Threats to Sharks and Rays
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) estimates that 24% of the world’s shark and ray species are threatened with extinction. Humans kill an estimated 100 million sharks each year, intentionally for their fins and meat and accidentally by commercial fisheries targeting other fish. Humans are also responsible for ray decline from targeted fishing efforts and by-catch.
Disney Conservation Efforts
The Walt Disney Company is passionately committed to the conservation of the many shark species and their aquatic habitats. Find out what Disney is doing for sharks—and how you can help, too!
Many shark species are facing serious population declines, as are their cousins—rays and chimaeras.
Overfishing of Sharks
Global decline in traditional fisheries has increased demand for shark meat and products, resulting in an expansion of industrial fishing across all of the world’s oceans. Rays, too, are being actively harvested and are commonly found as substitutes for fish in many markets.
Sharks and rays are slow-growing animals and reproduce slowly, which makes them vulnerable to overfishing—their depleted populations can take years or even decades to recover. The spiny dogfish shark is almost 20 years old before the female can reproduce, and she has one of the longest gestation periods in the animal world—24 months!
Shark Finning and Other Threats
Shark finning, a particularly wasteful practice, occurs when the fins are removed from the shark and the rest of the shark is simply discarded. The fins are used to make shark fin soup, considered a delicacy in some countries, which can sell for as much as $150 per bowl. Thankfully, shark finning has been drastically reduced as a result of increased media attention and stricter regulations.
Sharks and rays are threatened by habitat loss, and by commercial fishing vessels that are targeting other fish (incidental bycatch). Rays are intentionally hunted to create imitation scallops, for use in tools and jewelry, and for their gill rakers—which are valued in some markets as cures for everything from chickenpox to cancer.
Disney Is Helping Sharks and Rays in the Wild
Many of the 1,200-plus species of sharks and rays that inhabit the marine and fresh waters of our planet are on the verge of extinction. The Disney Conservation Fund is helping to reverse the decline of the most endangered sharks and rays by promoting their protection and recovery. We support programs that help increase awareness, protect critical habitats and ensure that fisheries, trade and demand for sharks and rays shift from overexploitation to sustainability.
The massive saltwater habitat at The Seas with Nemo & Friends at Epcot offers a dynamic and complex underwater home.
A Rich Underwater Habitat
The almost 6-million-gallon (22,000 cubic meters) shark and ray habitat at The Seas is constantly changing due to the many fish and sea turtles living there. This creates endless opportunities for the sharks, rays and all of our marine animals to explore their surroundings—while our coral reef provides a darker, protected area in which to swim, hide and breed.
Friends Not Food
All of the sharks at The Seas are fed early in the morning before the lights in the main exhibit are turned on for the day. A single bright light shines into the water as a cue for the animals to swim toward the surface in one particular location to be fed. They are fed (via long tongs) a balanced diet of high-quality salmon steaks, bonita filets, mackerel and herring. The rays enjoy a more intimate dining experience. Divers have trained the rays to touch their snout to a specific underwater target, and when they do, they are immediately rewarded with clams, shrimp and small pieces of fish.
Training the sharks and rays to feed at a certain spot makes it easier for the divers to visually inspect the animals closely on a regular basis and to ensure that each animal is healthy and getting the right amount of food.
As predators, sharks and rays play an important role in keeping our oceans healthy.
Sharks are among the ocean’s top predators, and their prey can vary widely. Smaller sharks might feed on plankton and krill, while bottom-dwellers eat crustaceans and mollusks. Some prefer larger prey such as fish, marine mammals and even other sharks. Most shark species are opportunistic feeders, preying on sick and injured animals—which helps keep the ocean healthy!
Rays are intelligent feeders! They use their “wings” and nose-like rostrum to sense prey and stir up the sand, uncovering clams, worms and crustaceans beneath the surface. When walking or wading in shallow water, make sure to shuffle your feet—stingrays may be buried underneath, and no one likes to be stepped on—or stung!
Shark teeth have the same general makeup as human teeth, but with a big difference—they are not rooted into the jaw or gumline, but are instead part of a loose membrane—which allows teeth to fall out after a powerful bite! These teeth are replaced by additional rows of reserved teeth, almost like a conveyor belt. Tooth replacement can be fast—from 2 to 8 days—which allows some sharks to go through 30,000 teeth in their lifetime!
Many rays have continuously growing dental plates instead of teeth, enabling them to crunch through the hard shells of clams and oysters. Unlike most fish, the upper jaw in rays is not fused into the skull, which allows them to extend their mouth away to create a suction for picking up prey items. Some rays, like the eagle ray, have pointed noses that are highly adapted for sensing and “rooting out” their preferred diet of clams and shellfish.
Where Do the Babies Come From?
Shark “pups” arrive in the world fully formed, miniature versions of adults—but they get there in 3 very different ways! Zebra sharks and similar species are oviparous—they release fertilized eggs into the sea in “mermaid’s purses,” with enough yolk inside to nourish the embryo until it hatches. Others, like the blacknose shark and brown sharks, are viviparous, producing embryos that develop internally and are nourished from a placenta until the pups are born. Sand tiger sharks are ovoviviparous, retaining fertilized eggs inside their bodies. In some ovoviviparous species, predator behavior starts early—when the egg yolk runs out, the top embryos eat the other embryos!
Rays also reproduce by ovoviviparity—the embryos absorb nutrients from a yolk sac, and after the sac is depleted, the mother provides a rich uterine "milk." After a 2 to 11 month gestation period (depending on the species), a litter of up to 10 large “pups” is born!
A shark’s liver occupies up to 90% of its body cavity, and has a dual purpose—to store oils and fatty acids for energy, and to help it maintain “neutral buoyancy” (not floating up or sinking down). Sound travels 4.5 times faster underwater than on land, and sharks use sound as a primary means of detecting prey—attracted to the kinds of low-frequency, pulsed sounds that sick and injured prey emit. But sharks also have excellent night vision and can see great distances—and their sense of smell is so acute that they can detect blood (as low as one part per billion) from hundreds of meters away!
Like sharks, rays generally have a counter-shaded coloration, meaning that the upper portion of their bodies is darker in color than their underside. This acts as a type of camouflage—when viewed from above, the dark upper portion blends in with the dark ocean depths. When viewed from below, the light underside blends in with the lighter surface of the water. Some rays have additional spots or blotchy coloration patterns on top that make them blend in even more with naturally occurring ocean sediment.
Attacks on humans are extremely rare, but how can you minimize the risk?
What can you do to protect sharks, rays and their marine habitats? The answer is, more than you think!
Avoid purchasing all shark and ray products, including shark fin soup, shark-cartilage pills and souvenirs like jaws, teeth and jewelry made from rays’ barbs. Choose sustainable seafood and eat responsibly to make sure shark populations do not become exploited. Eagle rays are often seen swimming near the surface and may occasionally leap out of water; to help protect these magnificent creatures, use extra caution when boating near their habitats.
Whether on land or sea, make sure you monitor and dispose of your trash properly. Human-made debris, from abandoned fishing equipment to burst balloons, can often end up in places that sharks and stingrays call home. Marine life frequently mistake trash for food or can become entwined in fishing lines, nets or balloon strings, which can be life threatening for them. Instead of releasing balloons, plant a tree, fly a kite or blow bubbles to commemorate an occasion in a wildlife-friendly way.
Visit the websites below to discover how Disney is making the world a safer place for sharks, rays and their habitats—and how you can make a difference, too!
Swimming with Sharks and Rays at Disney
“I have learned from the animal world, and what everyone will learn who studies it, is a renewed sense of kinship with the Earth and all its inhabitants.” – Walt Disney