A University of New England professor who helped pioneer a way to perform ultrasounds on pregnant tiger sharks will kick off the Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” on Sunday.

James Sulikowski and a research crew filmed “Tiger Beach” for 10 days in the Bahamas last January.

“The first day we were there, we got some of the best, most unbelievable ultrasound images that I’ve ever seen to date,” Sulikowski, 47, a marine sciences professor said in an interview Wednesday. “It’s just phenomenal to see these little baby sharks within the mom. The details — you can see their teeth. Just absolutely incredible.”

Before the new technique, the way to research tiger shark gestational periods had been to kill the would-be moms.

“Ultimately, we want to know where they give birth, areas called nursing grounds,” he said. “You can’t track the movement of a dead shark.”

Sulikowski and Neil Hammerschlag at the University of Miami recently published findings of their ultrasound research, which Sulikowski believes caught the Discovery Channel’s attention.


Discovery’s iconic “Shark Week” is in its 29th year.

“The draw with the Discovery Channel was that we were asking questions and using technologies that no one had done,” he said. “And one of the criticisms of the Discovery Channel over the past couple years is that there was a lack of science. All the shows were basically sharks jumping out of the water and eating seals. So they really wanted that more scientific approach. The great story  — conservation, management — all those things, I think, resonated with them.”

The unusual Maine-Miami partnership likely appealed, too.

Sulikowski, who’s taught at UNE since 2006, has worked with many varieties of sharks, but said he has a particular fondness for tiger sharks.

“One of my specialties is reproductive biology: When do sharks reproduce, how often do they do it, when do they become sexually mature?” he said. “The whole gamut.” 

But not much had been known outside the “pretty violent” conception.


“The males basically bite, pin down the females,” he said. “They get bitten up. It’s pretty intense.”

This led to a theory: Were females, some pregnant, some not, congregating in a refuge known as Tiger Beach in the Bahamas to get away from males?

In January, Sulikowski, Hammerschlag and their research crew, which included 2015 UNE grad Carolyn Wheeler, used a baited hook to catch the sharks before dragging them onto a dive platform and lifting the sharks out of the water.

“It is a little unnerving when you’re sitting on a 14-foot shark,” he said. “Their bodies aren’t used to gravity so it’s hard for them to move (out of the water). You’re always alert and ready for something to happen.”

The sharks were probed with the ultrasound, tagged and then tracked. So far, the gestation period is believed to be 15 to 16 months, he said. Where they go to give birth, and why, is part of the ongoing research.

“Sharks are important, all of them,” Sulikowski said. “They are wonderful predators and they tend to pick out the weak and the dying, and they keep other populations under control. They’re wonderful for our ecosystem, so it’s good for us to have them around.”


Despite the close quarters, Sulikowski counts only one close call in his career.

“Back in the day, I got bitten by a nurse shark, but that was because I was harassing it, and that’s something you should never do,” he said. “It kind of latched on, but they don’t have very big teeth. It just kind of sucked on my leg a little bit.”

Speaking to the longevity of “Shark Week,” Sulikowski said sharks both terrify and fascinate people. They’re majestic. Mysterious. And, he insisted, “We’re not on the menu.”

“What surprises most people is the fact that sharks really don’t want anything to do with us,” he said. “People always call them ‘shark attacks.’ They’re not attacks. They’re not out to mug us or do something like that. If we’re bitten by a shark, it’s often times mistaken identity. Three thousand humans bite other humans on New York subways a year. You have a higher chance of being bitten by another human being than being bitten by a shark.”


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