Sometimes that leisurely stroll along the beach just doesn’t work out the way you’d planned. That’s what happened to biologist Dr Alan Holyoak back in 2012 when his morning walk in Seaside, Oregon turned into an impromptu shark-saving mission.
After spotting something unusual lying on the shore, Holyoak approached to find a baby shark in urgent need of rescue. At first glance, the tiny, pale-bellied animal appears to be a great white, but what you’re actually looking at is a juvenile salmon shark (Lamna ditropis).
“It was in obvious distress when we found it,” recalls Holyoak. “It was lethargic and showing few signs of life.” Like their much larger cousins, salmon sharks are ram ventilators, meaning they must continuously swim forward to move oxygenated water over their gills.
Rather than leaving the animal to die, Holyoak, who has years of experience with marine life, decided to help the shark breathe. That meant a slow and very tense walk towards the surf.
“I was careful to keep my hands well back from the mouth, even a small shark like this can give a nasty bite,” he says. “I consider myself lucky to have been able to help this shark and avoid injury. Animals don’t know that someone may be trying to help them. They live and act according to their own rules, and demand respect.”
Should you happen upon a shark – or any stranded animal for that matter – the best course of action is always to contact local wildlife officials.
Holyoak’s plan was simple. By holding the shark with its mouth facing the incoming waves, he hoped the animal would begin to revive. But after several minutes, things were still not looking up.
“This is similar to what you might do for a trout before you let it go if you were a catch-and-release fisherman,” he explains. “But the shark was like a rag doll. I pulled it back up onto the beach (staying well clear of the teeth-end, just in case) and we gave it another look.”
By that point, a crowd of curious onlookers had gathered to watch the rescue unfold. And just when all seemed lost, the shark finally flexed its jaws. Holyoak carried it back to the waves once more, and this time, the move worked.
“It started swimming weakly, but eventually made it past the surf zone into calmer water where we were able to see its fin for another 5-10 minutes, [before it] eventually moved farther out to sea. We were happy to successfully return this animal to the water and see it swim away. The majority of stranded animals aren’t this lucky, even if someone tries to help them.”
While we’re hoping this animal made a full recovery, salmon sharks in the area are known to strand due to infections of carnobacteria, which cause inflammation in the brain. If this was the case here, it’s possible the little shark died despite Holyoak’s noble effort.