Art and Elasmobranchs

Welcome to my first ever blog post! Some artwork speaks for itself and the only true interpretation is your own. Others have a rich story, which enhances your experience of it. This piece is the latter, all the rich detail about my latest inky piece; Elasmobranchs of Gathaagudu (Shark Bay).

The Elasmobranchs of Gathaagudu is the fourth in my limited edition ink series, following The Anchor (2018), Oceanic Rotunda (2019) and Lust for Lustre (2022). Not a drop of richly pigmented watercolour in sight, the ink series offers a peek into my varied world where science meets art and a love of collecting, albeit an iconographical, hand-drawn one.

Taking a sideways step from my nautical history and pirate-inspired pieces, the Elasmobranchs of Gathaagudu purely illustrates the 52 species of elasmobranchs (sharks, rays, skates and sawfish) of Gathaagudu (meaning Two Waters or Two Bays in Malgana language) of the Shark Bay World Heritage Area. Her shape is that of thaaka (shark in Malgana language), and specifically the majestic tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier), the keystone predator species of ‘the bay’. While Shark Bay is aptly named, it is actually the small nervous shark/whaler that you’re most likely to see. They’re often very visible in the large schools (sometimes in their hundreds) as they congregate in the shallows of protected bays.

So why elasmobranchs? Since moving from Perth to Shark Bay in April 2022, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for the marine life that inhabits this special part of the world, the elasmobranchs in particular. I love scouting the seas in search of sharks and rays to admire. The species diversity is as incredible as the environmental setting itself. A day out on the boat in the bay can treat you to many wondrous experiences; from the three cheeky juvenile spotted eagle rays that commonly cruise Denham’s shipping channel, to the elusive smoothnose wedgefish that stalk the seagrass beds, the majestic hammerheads and even a rare annual appearance of the gentle whale sharks that visit the south passage between Steep Point and Dirk Hartog Island.

My fascination with elasmobranchs led me to wanting to illustrate them in a single piece in my inky style. These pieces become a research project in themselves. Not only compiling the list of species but then the image reference library and the tricky bit – making all of them fit! And although my professional career was as  a marine environmental scientists – I know very little about elasmobranchs. So it was a big learning experience. What on earth is an epaulette shark and has anyone ever seen one in the bay? Answer is, they’re an amazing little carpet shark that can ‘walk’ on its pectoral fins when it gets shallow and yes, I’ve since learned that they are seen in the bay every now and then. Also, there are three species of wobbegong and three species of hammerheads! How do you tell them apart? And what’s the difference between a common blacktip shark and a blacktip reef shark? Having had to draw each and every one of them, now I know. I’ve also slipped in the egg casings of two (of the three) species in the region that lay them; the epaulette shark and the zebra/leopard shark. To fill in the gaps, I slotted in teeth of a number of the shark species – there are some gnarly ones!

Coming up to visit the bay and want to see some of these incredible species for yourself? Any given day out on the water offers a different experience. Best way is to go out on a boat, so if getting out on your own isn’t a feasible option, Shark Bay Dive and Marine Safaris or Perfect Nature Cruises have you sorted. Not much time but still keen to feast your eyes? A visit to Ocean Park Aquarium will keep you entertained with their shark feeding tank and smaller aquariums with beautiful blue spotted rays and painted mask rays. The lookouts from Eagle Bluff and Francois Peron National Park’s Skipjack Point also offer wonderful vistas for spotting sharks and other marine life. Visit the Shark Bay Discovery Centre to chat through your options. I’m not going to give away all my secrets 😉

Down to the nitty gritty nerdy part. The 52 elasmobranchs species list is an amalgamation of that compiled by the Shark Bay Ecosystem Research Project and the Western Australian Parks and Wildlife Services. Some species are common, while others are very rare visitors but have been included in the list, as the bay is part of the geographical distribution. Here they are:

  1. Australian/reticulate whipray (Himantura australis)
  2. Black stingray (Dasyatis thetidis)
  3. Blackspotted whipray (Maculabatis astra)
  4. Blacktip reef shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus)
  5. Blue-spotted stingray (Dasyatis kuhlii)
  6. Bronze whaler shark (Carcharhinus brachyurus)
  7. Brown whipray (Maculabatis toshi)
  8. Bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas)
  9. Common blacktip shark (Carcharhinus limbatus)
  10. Cowtail stingray (Pastinachus sephen)
  11. Creek whaler (Carcharhinus fitzroyensis)
  12. Dusky shark (Carcharhinus obscurus)
  13. Epaulette shark (Hemiscyllium ocellatum)
  14. Fossil shark (Hemipristis elongata)
  15. Great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias)
  16. Green sawfish (Pritis zijsron)
  17. Grey carpet/bamboo shark (Chiloscyllium punctatum)
  18. Grey nurse shark (Carcharias taurus)
  19. Grey reef shark (Carcharhinus amblyrhynchos)
  20. Hammerheads – Great hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran)
  21.  – Scalloped hammerhead (Sphyrna zygaena)
  22.   – Smooth hammerhead (Sphyrna zygaena)
  23. Lemon shark (Negaprion acutidens)
  24. Milk shark (Rhizoprionodon acutus)
  25. Nervous shark (Carcharhinus cautus)
  26. Painted maskray (Neotrygon leylandi)
  27. Pencil shark (Hypogaleus hyugaensis)
  28. Pigeye shark (Carcharhinus amboinensis)
  29. Pink whipray (Pateobatis fai)
  30. Reef manta ray (Manta alfredi)
  31. Sandbar shark (Carcharhinus plumbeus)
  32. Shark ray (Rhina anclyostoma)
  33. Shortfin mako (Isurus oxyrinchus)
  34. Shovelnose rays – Giant/common shovelnose ray (Glaucostegus typus)
  35. – Western shovelnose ray (Aptychotrema vincentiana)
  36. Silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis)
  37. Silvertip shark (Carcharhinus albimarginatus)
  38. Smoothnose wedgefish (Rhynchobatus laevis)
  39. Spinner shark (Carcharhinus brevipinna)
  40. Spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari)
  41. Tawny nurse shark (Nebrius ferrugineus)
  42. Tiger shark (Galeocerdo cuvier)
  43. Weasel shark (Hemigaleus microstoma)
  44. Western round skate (Irolita sp.)
  45. Whale shark (Rhincodon typus)
  46. Whiskery shark (Furgaleus macki)
  47. Whitecheek shark (Carcharhinus dussumieri)
  48. Whitetip reef shark (Triaenodon obesus)
  49. Wobbegongs – Western wobbegong (Orectolobus hutchinsi)
  50. – Spotted wobbegong (Orectolobus maculatus)
  51. – Banded wobbegong (Orectolobus halei)
  52. Zebra/leopard shark (Stegostoma tigrinum)

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Stay in the lopp with Sofie’s musings on marine life!

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