Her work helps fuel the Grand Strand’s tourist machine

sjones@thesunnews.comAugust 8, 2013 

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    This is one of a series of stories on people who make the Grand Strand work

— If you’re honest with yourself, you’ll admit there’s something titillating about the work that Stacia White does.

The senior aquarist at Ripley’s Aquarium, White swims with the sharks, and for at least some of you, the thought of that elicits the same kind of salivary anticipation as the thought of skydiving, bungee jumping or tightrope walking.

And while White is much more than Ripley’s shark lady, her work with Ripley’s no doubt enhances the visits of the 10,000 or so people who ride the aquarium’s moving walkway under the shark tank each summer day.

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The aquarium at Broadway at the Beach and its various exhibits are important, said Joe Rubino, a tourist from Charlotte, N.C., on the walkway Wednesday with his daughter, because it’s something different to do along the Grand Strand. A visit to it also can teach kids about the wonders of the ocean.

His daughter, Danielle, 10, said it wasn’t the first time she’d seen Ripley’s sharks, but they’re still scary.

They are wild animals, White acknowledges, and as such are unpredictable. And yes, they can inflict serious, even fatal, damage.

But if you know what you’re doing and how to deflect a shark that’s getting too curious, White said, the chances of something going wrong are minimal.

Indeed. Factmonster.com says that your chances of being killed by lightning in the U.S. are 30 times greater than dying from a shark attack. Bees, wasps and snakes kill more people each year than sharks.

A native of Cincinnati, Ohio, White fell in love with the Grand Strand on a family vacation and because of that, enrolled in Coastal Carolina University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in 2002 with a double major in marine science and biology.

She had interned at Newport Aquarium in Newport, Ky., between her junior and senior year and returned there after she graduated. That first summer, the aquarium had a pair of zebra shark pups that fascinated White.

“I saw each one has its own personality,” she said.

She heard about a job at Ripley’s, jumped at the chance to return to the South Carolina coast and became one of the eight-person fish tank crew that she now supervises.

She didn’t just jump into the 750,000-gallon shark tank right away, though. Ripley’s has a strict process that those allowed in the shark tank must go through first, so White started by diving in the ray tank, moved to the coral tank and only then graduated to the big time.

She said she was very excited her first time with the sharks, an emotion that the fish likely could sense. Sharks have electric sensors on their bodies and in their mouths, and White said they seem to be able to sense the demeanor of those in their domain.

The sensors on their bodies allow sharks to tell which side prey is on while those in the fish’s mouth help it to home in on food when its mouth is open and it can no longer see its target.

Swimmers in Ripley’s shark tank carry what’s called guard poles that they can use to keep the fish away from someone who is, for instance, cleaning the tank. White said it’s as easy as putting the pole against the shark’s snout and pushing its head in another direction. Sharks can’t swim backwards, she explained, so whichever way its head is aiming is the direction it’ll swim.

A shark’s normal diet is the same kind of fish that share the tank at Ripley’s. Yes, White said, sometimes one of the other fish will become lunch or dinner, but it’s not a frequent occurrence.

“We do feed them extra well so they don’t have that urge to eat all the time,” she said.

A fish in the tank Wednesday bore scars from a shark bite White guessed it got during a feeding. The fish was in the wrong place at the wrong time and got nipped by a shark aiming for its prepared meal.

It’s the same kind of bite most humans get from sharks. White said they are exploratory nips, after which the shark quickly disappears from the scene. Sharks likely are as frightened of humans as humans are of them.

Ripley’s Aquarium has 13 sand tiger sharks, five sandbar sharks, three nurse sharks and four sawfish, which are White’s favorite fish.

A sawfish is a near duplicate of a saw shark, a species with a distinctive, toothed blade for a snout. But sawfish, which are extremely endangered, are related to rays and have gills on their undersides rather than on their sides like other fish.

White is the keeper of the stud book – yes, as in horse breeding – for sawfish nationwide, which number 46 in 14 aquariums. The Myrtle Beach Ripley’s has three species of sawfish, a number matched only by Ripley’s Aquarium in Gatlinburg, Tenn., White said.

With sawfish, aquariums act kind of like zoos, places that can breed the stock to replenish what’s disappeared from the wild.

As an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Ripley’s ships some of the fish it breeds to other accredited aquariums. It doesn’t stock its tanks with wild fish that are endangered.

White said the shark tank has a kind of Zen tank behind it where the smaller fish can go as a respite from the constant scrutiny of the sharks and the tourists on the moving walkway. Sharks can’t get in it because the opening is too small for them to swim through.

Ripley’s also has offsite tanks where it can take sick fish and acclimate fish headed to the aquarium from the wild.

While some humans might pity captive sharks, the statistics say that the fish themselves find it quite cushy.

Sand tiger sharks, White said, can grow to 10 feet and 500 pounds in their 20 years to 30 years in a proper aquarium.

The oldest one found in the wild? Seventeen years, White said.

Contact STEVE JONES at 444-1765.

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