Midwest shark scientist begins groundbreaking research on secret lives of sharks

By: Nick Whitney, Senior Research Scientist

We announced last fall, the arrival of Dr. Nick Whitney at Newport Aquarium. Read more here: Newport Aquarium announced Renowned Shark Scientist, Nick Whitney, joined the Newport Aquarium team.

From the time I was a young kid growing up in Michigan I knew exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up: a garbage man. What could be better than riding around on the back of a truck all day, wearing whatever you want, and playing your music at full blast?

As I grew up I tried various other jobs: I umpired softball but was always getting screamed at by half the people (the half that knew the rules). I worked construction for a while but accidentally shot my boss in the hand with a nail gun (he handled it well). I worked in an aquarium store but got fired for missing too much work (spring break trip to Florida).

With all of these career failures during high school, college seemed like a logical choice for me. I was intrigued by the work of Dr. Jeff Carrier, a professor at nearby Albion College (Albion, MI), who was studying sharks in the Florida Keys. A shark scientist in the Midwest? What a concept!

I had been fascinated with sharks all my life, and my experience in the aquarium industry (including breeding some endangered species in a series of tanks in my bedroom), made me the closest thing to a marine biology student that this professor could find at a small liberal arts college in Michigan.

Jeff took the time to meet with me and eventually invited me to come to Albion and help him with his shark research. It took me about half a second to accept this invitation, and as an undergraduate I spent three summers capturing, tagging, and tracking nurse sharks on their mating grounds in the Florida Keys. I had the time of my life – no one screamed at me, there were no nail guns, and my boss was the one sending me on spring break trips to Florida.


Nick Whitney tags a nurse shark while on a tagging exhibition  in the Florida Keys, as an undergrad at Albion College. Photo Credit: Dr. Jeffrey C. Carrier

I learned how to handle myself on the water and how to handle sharks without getting bitten (most of the time). I also learned science skills that made me a good candidate for graduate school at the University of Hawaii.

Working in Hawaii for 8 years and Florida for another 7 after that put me on the front lines of shark research, and in the process I started learning how to use a new type of tag called an accelerometer.

These tags use the same sensors found in Fitbits, smartphones, and video game controllers to reveal fine-scale details about the secret lives of sharks. I’ll talk more about these cool tools/toys in an upcoming post.

It’s now 2017 and you can do whatever you want from almost anywhere! Take it from a shark scientist working for an organization in Boston, MA (New England Aquarium) living in Cincinnati, OH, working in Newport, KY, who still does much of his fieldwork in Florida. It sounds complicated, and it took some time to set up, but so far it’s fantastic.

My research now focuses largely on what happens to sharks after they are caught and released by fishermen. Our tags allow us to determine whether the sharks live or die, and how long it takes them to recover and start swimming normally again.

I’m also involved with exciting research on the behavior of sea turtles and other species, and all of my work involves a heavy logistical component. By that I mean we often have to design and build new tag packages for different projects. So I spend a lot of time brainstorming ideas on how we can combine different tags, how we can attach them to animals, and how we can get them back.


This is one of the things I am excited to work on with my new colleagues at Newport Aquarium. I now have easy access to a number of different sharks and rays (and other species) just 20 minutes from my house. We will be taking advantage of this in the coming months by testing a number of different tag packages and attachment styles, some of which you may see on animals when you visit the aquarium.

The whole goal is to figure out the best way of attaching these tags so that they will stay on the animals without inhibiting them. This takes a lot of trial and error, so don’t be surprised if most of the tags you see are in various stages of falling off the shark. That means we’re learning!


Photo Credit: Rob Nelson, UntamedScience.com

I’ll also be helping the biologists at Newport Aquarium to formalize and publicize some of the research they have already been doing over the past several years. This includes some groundbreaking work in breeding and rearing shark rays that reminds me a lot of my work with mating nurse sharks in the Keys. So exciting!

Now my kids get to come to Newport Aquarium almost weekly and are blown away by the place. They try very hard not to admit that their uncool dad has a cool job, but once they start walking through the exhibits they go bonkers. My 2 year old wakes up in the middle of the night and says, “Go see Dory?”

They may grow up to be garbage men, or umpires, or construction workers, or most likely some career that doesn’t even exist today. But if they decide to be shark scientists, they have every reason to believe they can do that from here, or anywhere in the country.




Renowned Shark Scientist Joins Newport Aquarium

Newport Aquarium Takes Research Efforts to Next Level 

NEWPORT, Ky. — Thanks to a partnership with New England Aquarium, Newport Aquarium has created a new Senior Research Scientist position. Dr. Nick Whitney, Ph.D. is the new researcher working with the two institutions, and is now in residence at Newport Aquarium.

“This partnership speaks to the reach of the aquarium. We are now expanding our scope and commitment to wildlife conservation through leading-edge shark research,” said Eric Rose, Executive Director at Newport Aquarium.

Dr. Nick Whitney

Dr. Nick Whitney, new Senior Research Scientist

The opportunity for a dedicated research position presented itself when Dr. Whitney relocated to Cincinnati after more than seven years with Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida. He then joined the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life at New England Aquarium, and thanks to some great collaboration with these leading institutions, Dr. Whitney will work in residence right here at Newport Aquarium.

“I’m looking forward to taking research and conservation efforts here at Newport Aquarium to more of a national and international level. I’m excited to join this team of dedicated biologists and build upon their impressive research efforts that have the potential to improve animal care and field conservation around the world,” said Whitney.

Whitney’s research uses high-tech tags called accelerometers (the same motion sensors found in smartphones and Fitbits) to measure fine-scale movements of animals to study their behavior and answer questions that can’t be addressed through traditional tags. His current research with New England Aquarium focuses on whether sharks survive after being caught and released by fishermen.

At Newport, Whitney looks forward to contributing to ongoing research around the Aquarium’s groundbreaking shark ray breeding program, developing and testing new types of shark tags and attachment methods, and helping to increase the conservation impact of this research.

“We are fortunate to have the talents of Dr. Whitney on staff. He will also be supporting the animal husbandry team by leading our own in-house research, then publishing our original research in leading journals and publications,” said Eric Rose.

Dr. Whitney has conducted research on sharks, sea turtles, and other species and has appeared on the History Channel, Discovery Channel, and National Geographic Channel among others. He has worked with the conservation group OCEARCH to tag adult great white sharks off of Cape Cod, and his research has been supported by a variety of funding sources, including the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Geographic Society.

For more information, visit NewportAquarium.com or call 800-406-FISH (3474).


Newport Aquarium, named one of the top U.S. aquariums in 2016 by Leisure Group Travel, and voted the No. 1 aquarium in the country by USA Today’s 10Best.com in 2012, has showcased thousands of animals from around the world in a million gallons of water since 1999. Named a top U.S. aquarium by US City Traveler and Destinations Travel Magazine in 2014, and also by Travel Channel in 2013, Newport Aquarium is a Herschend Family Entertainment company and an accredited member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Newport Aquarium is open to the public 365 days a year and is located across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati at Newport on the Levee.

Stay Hooked In: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Google+ | YouTube | WordPress
One Aquarium Way | Newport, KY 41071 | 859-261-7444

National Veterinary Technician Week 2016

This week is National Veterinary Technician Week. The National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America (NAVTA) recognizes veterinary technicians for their contributions in animal healthcare. Vet Techs are educated professionals who work closely with veterinarians to ensure the best quality of care for animals. We’d like to recognize Jolene Hanna, the Animal Health & Quarantine Manager and Veterinary Technician at Newport Aquarium. Thank you, Jolene for all that you do!

Jolene Hanna, RVT Animal Health & Quarantine Manager at Newport Aquarium, feeds a shark behind the scenes.

Jolene Hanna, RVT Animal Health & Quarantine Manager at Newport Aquarium, feeds a shark behind the scenes.

Why did you choose to become a vet tech?

“I always wanted to work with animals. As a teenager, I worked as kennel help at the local vet hospital and was given the opportunity to go out on farm calls and to watch surgeries on a regular basis.”

Hanna received her Bachelor’s degree in Marine Biology. “I always wanted to work with dolphins.”

As fate would have it, she ended up working with a completely different species – sharks! She helped launch the world’s first Shark Ray Breeding program, and ended up working with sharks here at Newport Aquarium.

After college, Hanna joined AmeriCorps and completed the Vet Tech program before coming to work at Newport Aquarium.

What’s your favorite part of your job?

“The possibilities are limitless. I don’t have a ‘typical’ day. I could be in the Antarctic or I could be diving in the Amazon tank. There’s always something new to learn.”

Something new, such as taking part in research projects.  “Taking part in scientific research. I did a study on birth control implants on freshwater stingrays.”

Hanna makes tank-side visits with animals at Newport Aquarium. “I never would have imagined I’d be doing this, but this is what I do.”

What has been your most memorable moment during your career?

“Definitely, working with the shark rays – it’s been a long journey! It’s an opportunity to work with a first of its kind program in the world.”

“We’re part of (kind of) a new industry, working with sharks. What we learn, we’re sharing the knowledge with other institutions. We have become better stewards for the species. This is my contribution to something that is globally influential. I’m putting my fingerprint on it.”

Celebrate Shark Week at Newport Aquarium

Newport Aquarium is the Shark Capital of the Midwest and with more shark habitats to SEA, TOUCH and EXPLORE than ever before, it’s the best place to celebrate Discovery Channel’s Shark Week.

Visit June 26 through July 3 to see nearly 60 sharks up-close, including sand tigers, sand bars, black tips, hammerhead, nurse shark, shark rays and more!

Newport Aquarium currently features more than a dozen species of sharks from oceans around the world.

Shark Bridge

Newport_Aquarium_Shark_Bridge_HR_--¼2015_Steve_Ziegelmeyer-0799Experience sharks like never before by crossing the world’s first Shark Bridge.

Shark Bridge is included with general admission. For thrill-seekers who dare to cross, The V-shaped rope bridge is 75-feet-long and is suspended over the open water of the 385,000 gallon Surrounded by Sharks exhibit. As guests walk across, they’re just inches above more than two dozen sharks and shark rays.

Touch the Sharks

rsz_touching4Do you know what a shark’s skin feels like? Have you ever touched a shark fin as it glides across the water? See for yourself at Shark Central. You can touch dozens of sharks in the Shark Central Exhibit.

Learn the proper two-finger touch technique to make personal contact with these amazing animals.

Shark Talks/Dive Shows

Step into Shark Ray Bay Theater for your first and biggest view of our Shark Rays, sharks and the divers who care for them. Hear divers talk about the sharks and animals all around them and find out what you can do to protect a shark’s natural environment.

Divers even answer your questions!

Shark Ray Feed

SharkRay_Group[1]See rare Shark Rays – Sweet Pea, Scooter, Sunshine and Spike – being fed and trained by biologists in the Surround by Sharks Exhibit.

Shark Tank Feed

Are sharks ferocious eaters? Watch and decide for yourself as biologists feed the sharks in the 385,000 gallon Surrounded by Sharks tank.

View the sharks from the Surrounded by Sharks tunnels, or get a biologists’ point-of-view from the Shark Top viewing area.

Shark Tank Overlook

Get a fascinating topside view of the Shark Rays and their friends as you look down into the Surrounded by Sharks tank from one of the country’s largest open air tank displays.

Shark Ray Pups Make Debut at Newport Aquarium

The rare shark rays born earlier this year made their official public debut today in the Coral Reef. This is the first time the public has gotten the chance to see them. The 60,000 gallon Coral Reef habitat is similar to their native surroundings in the Indo-Pacific.

Shark ray pups explore the Coral Reef. The 60,000 gallon Coral Reef habitat is similar to their native surroundings in the Indo-Pacific.

Shark ray pups explore the Coral Reef. The 60,000 gallon Coral Reef habitat is similar to their native surroundings in the Indo-Pacific.

Newport Aquarium is proud of the work of the team of biologists taking care of the pups since they were born in January.


Part of the Animal Care Team: Mark Dvornak, Scott Brehob, Jen Hazeres, and Jolene Hanna – standing in front of the top of the Coral Reef tank after moving the shark ray pups into the tank.

“The whole Husbandry Team is a massive support,” said Jolene Hanna, Newport Aquarium Animal Health Specialist. “Everyone has their own sub-set of talents and life experiences to share.”

The pups have reached several milestones since birth. The pups range in weight from 10 to 13 pounds and they’re around 2.5 feet long. At birth, the pups’ weight ranged from 2 to 2.4 pounds and 18 to 22 inches long.

“They’re intelligent animals, they start to recognize who is with them all the time,” said Jen Hazeres, Senior Biologist. “There is so much more to learn from them.”

Newport Aquarium shark ray pup

Shark ray pup swimming with Dory – exploring the surroundings in the Coral Reef.

Hazeres and Hanna are part of the Animal Care Team that closely monitors the pups and attends to every need. This has been a long journey for the biologists and they continue to learn from the pups and each other every day.
“They’re intelligent animals – they’re very aware of you and their surroundings,” said Hanna.

Shark rays are an amazing species with unique characteristics. The Coral Reef habitat gives Newport Aquarium guests an opportunity to get eye to eye with the shark ray pups.

Newport Aquarium shark ray pup

Get eye-to-eye with the shark ray pups as they swim overhead in the Coral Reef tunnel.

“We’re still learning about this species – so little is known about them in the wild. By having them here, under professional care, we’re learning their growth rate and so much more,” said biologist Scott Brehob.

With the debut of shark ray pups in the Coral Reef, Newport Aquarium is happy to kickoff the Summer Family Hours Special.


2 Kids Get In Free!
Families can make a splash this summer with Newport Aquarium’s Summer Family Hours Special – for tickets purchased online only. Now through September 2nd, up to two kids get in for free after 4 p.m. with each adult paying full price Sunday through Friday from 4:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. Purchase tickets at www.newportaquarium.com.

Six Amazing Facts About Shark Rays

Newport Aquarium prepares to make history as the rare shark ray pups born earlier this year make their public debut later this week, on Friday, June 24, 2016. Newport Aquarium made history in 2005 when Sweet Pea arrived, becoming the first shark ray on exhibit in the Western Hemisphere. Shark rays are native to the western Indo-Pacific, and are found on sandy and mud bottoms near coral reefs. Newport Aquarium started the first Shark Ray Breeding program in 2007, with the introduction of Spike, which made Newport Aquarium home to the most shark rays on exhibit in the Western hemisphere. In addition to the shark ray pups, there are four adult shark rays. Two females: Sweet Pea and Sunshine, and two males: Scooter and Spike.

Newport Aquarium Shark Rays

Four shark rays are on exhibit at Newport Aquarium: Sweet Pea, Scooter, Sunshine and Spike.

SweetPea, Shark Ray

Adult shark rays like Sweet Pea have lighter coloration.

Not sharks or rays
Shark rays are neither sharks nor rays. Their scientific name is Rhina ancylostoma. Their common name is Bowmouth Guitarfish – their broad arc-shaped head is similar to a bow, and their body tapers into a more streamlined shape, much like that of sharks.



Human-like Eyes
Shark rays have dual fins and human-like eyes.

Adult shark ray

Shark rays have human-like eyes.

When they’re born, shark rays have very dark coloration. Their color changes with age. Young shark rays have brown bodies, pale ring-shaped spots covering their pectoral fins, and black bars (almost like stripes) between their eyes. Adults have charcoal or pale gray bodies with small white spots.



They Blend In
Shark rays use their spots for camouflage. Our biologists have observed: shark rays have the ability to adapt their coloration to their environment. When they’re swimming

Newport Aquarium shark ray pup

Juvenile shark rays, like this pup, have darker coloration.

over a lighter sand/gravel, they tend to be lighter colored. When they’re in darker areas and swimming over a darker bottom, they tend to be darker, and their spots are darker.

Teeth Grinders
Shark rays eat shellfish including lobster and shrimp, which live on the ocean floor. Their heavily-ridged teeth are like coffee grinders that crush prey with hard shells.

Prehistoric Protection
They look almost prehistoric. Shark rays are born with a dorsal “thorn ridge” – unusual spiked ridges over their eyes, nape, and pectoral fins, which they use for protection.

No Schoolin’ Around
Shark rays don’t “school” like fish. They’re a solitary species. They prefer to swim on their own, and choose their own separate areas.

Shark Ray Pups Born at Newport Aquarium Will Make Public Debut on June 24, 2016

In Honor Of World Ocean’s Day, Aquarium Makes Historic Announcement

Today, in honor of World Oceans Day, Newport Aquarium announced that the rare shark rays born earlier this year are ready to make their public debut. This will be the first time the five month old shark ray pups have been on exhibit.  The public is invited to see them in the aquarium’s 55,000 gallon Coral Reef tunnel exhibit beginning Friday, June 24.

Since being born on January 5, the shark ray pups have received care from Newport Aquarium biologists, who have closely monitored them and attended to every need.

See shark ray pups being weighed, measured and fed in this video

“It’s getting more and more difficult for shark rays to survive in their natural environment,” said Ric Urban, Chief Conservation Officer at Newport Aquarium. “Without the work Newport Aquarium is doing, long-term survival of this species wouldn’t be possible.”

Programs like Newport Aquarium’s Shark Ray Breeding Program are important, because the world’s shark ray population is depleting at a faster rate than it is being replaced. This is due to habitat destruction, pollution, overfishing and the use of their fins for products like fin soup.

Aquarium biologists will determine the exact number of pups that will go into the Coral Reef tunnel exhibit as June 24 draws nearer.

Shark Ray Breeding Program Background
In October 2015, Newport Aquarium announced both its female shark rays, Sweet Pea and Sunshine were pregnant– the second and third documented cases of shark ray breeding under professional animal care in the world. Sweet Pea became the first documented shark ray to become pregnant in 2013. In January 2016, Sweet Pea gave birth to 9 shark ray pups. Five survived, which is not uncommon with similar species, like sharks.  Sunshine’s pregnancy did not come to full term.

World Oceans Day
Every year, World Oceans Day provides a unique opportunity to honor, help protect, and conserve the world’s oceans. Learn more about World Oceans Day here.

$5 Kid Saver Special
Families can make a splash this summer with Newport Aquarium’s Kid Saver Special. Now through June 30th, 2016, up to two kids get in for $5 each with every adult paying full price, Sunday through Friday from 4:00 p.m. – 7:00 p.m. for tickets purchased online.

Stay Hooked In: Facebook | Twitter | Instagram | Google+ | YouTube | WordPress
One Aquarium Way | Newport, KY 41071 | 859-261-7444

Newport Aquarium’s Shark Bridge Celebrates One Year!

Newport Aquarium celebrates the one-year milestone of the world’s first Shark Bridge on April 30th. The V-shaped rope bridge is 75-feet-long and is suspended over the open water of the 385,000 gallon Surrounded by Sharks exhibit.

Newport Aquarium Shark Bridge

The world’s first Shark Bridge is 75-feet-long and is suspended over the open water of the 385,000 gallon Surrounded by Sharks exhibit.

It took about 788 hours of labor to make, build and install the Shark Bridge. More than 4 miles (approximately 21,750 feet) of rope was used to construct the Shark Bridge. It’s made of 1.5 tons of steel, and is strong enough to hold the weight of up to 20,000 pounds, which is equal to an entire semi-truck, 25 Mighty Mikes (our 14 foot, 800 pound American Alligator) or more than 600 King Penguins!

Newport Aquarium Shark Bridge

More than 4 miles of rope was used to construct the Shark Bridge. It’s made of 1.5 tons of steel, and is strong enough to hold up to 20,000 pounds.

Surround by Sharks is home to six species of sharks including our Sand Tiger Sharks, Sand Bar Shark, Zebra Shark, Black Tip Reef Sharks, Nurse Shark, and Scalloped Hammerhead. It also houses our four exotic Shark Rays Sweet Pea, Scooter, Sunshine, and Spike.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

You never know what you’re going to see when crossing Shark Bridge. Denver, the mischievous loggerhead sea turtle, might come to the surface to take a breath just below your feet. You can even watch as our biologists target feed our Shark Rays!

Newport Aquarium Shark Bridge

Shark Bridge is an interactive family walk through experience.

Don’t fear! If Shark Bridge isn’t for you, you are welcome to walk along the edge of the tank and you can still view all of the amazing animals swimming inside.

Crossing Shark Bridge is included with Newport Aquarium admission. Since opening last year, it has been estimated that guests have crossed Shark Bridge more than ONE MILLION times! Do YOU dare to cross?

Shark Bridge is an interactive family walk through experience. Walkers will experience slight side-to-side motion and some uneven footing. All guests must use the entrance due to the one-way direction of travel. All guests must walk themselves. No guest may be carried. Shark Bridge is an able-bodied experience. For the safety of all guests running, jumping, rough play, climbing, food and drinks, hard or soft casts or braces of any kind are strictly prohibited on Shark Bridge. Closed-toe shoes are recommended and shoes must be worn at all times. Children younger than 5 years old must be accompanied by a parent, guardian, or chaperone. Newport Aquarium is not responsible for lost or dropped items. Guests are encouraged to secure all items before entering Shark Bridge. Items that fall may not be able to be retrieved.