Small Sharks, Big Consequences

Curious sharks end a cruise

Bronwen Scott


Photo by Bibi Pace on Unsplash

Three people have been rescued in the Coral Sea off the coast of Cairns, after their catamaran was damaged during several shark attacks…

When I read the story, I imagined a pack of Bronze Whalers or Tiger Sharks in a feeding frenzy, snapping at the vessel as if it were a whale carcase.

You’re gonna need a bigger boat.

Yes, there were sharks and they did bite the catamaran, causing it to submerge. The people on board activated their EPIRB and a cargo ship diverted to rescue them. They were picked up within 45 minutes of sending their emergency signal. (Always carry a beacon.)

The attackers were no more than 50 cm (20 in) long.

Small, unlovable and, above all, determined, Cookiecutter Sharks mistook the inflatable twin hulls of the catamaran for larger prey. That mistake — repeated over two nights — breached the dense rubber of the vessel and caused it to deflate.

The first specimen of these sharks to be given scientific scrutiny was collected off Brazil by the French exploring expedition aboard L’Uranie (1817–1820). Georges Cuvier named it Scymnus brasiliensis.

Frederick Debell Bennett caught two more specimens while on the whaling ship Tuscan (1833–1836) and described the species in vivid detail.

When the larger specimen, taken at night, was removed into a dark apartment, it afforded a very extraordinary spectacle. The entire inferior surface of the body and head emitted a vivid and greenish phosphorescent gleam, imparting to the creature, by its own light, a truly ghastly and terrific appearance.

Unaware that they belonged to the species first collected by L’Uranie, he named them Squalus fulgens — the luminous or shining shark. (Not understanding quite how small the shark was, Sir John Lubbock described its glow as making it appear ‘like some great ravenous spectre’.

In his description of the teeth, he noted their similarity to a surgical trephine, used for cutting into bone.

The upper jaw is armed with many rows of small sharp teeth, while the lower has only…



Bronwen Scott

Zoologist, writer, artist, museum fan, enjoying life in the tropical rainforest of Far North Queensland. She/her. Website: