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October 26, 2001

Spinning Sharks

Blacktip sharks are often confused for spinners because they share the same defensive maneuvers.

Q: While fishing in Florida Bay, we saw what we thought were porpoises about 5 feet long, jumping completely out of the water. Our guide told us they were spinner sharks. Why is the animal called a spinner shark, and why does it jump like that? - Randolph Winston, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

A: The spinner shark (Carcharhinus brevipinna) was named by fishermen due to its habit of leaping out of the water and spinning like a top in the air, often wrapping itself in the leader and breaking the line. However, what you saw might have been blacktip sharks (C. limbatus). The blacktip looks practically identical to the spinner and is also known to jump and spin. The spinner shark, found in warm waters worldwide, ranges along the eastern U.S. from North Carolina to the Gulf of Mexico and Brazil, but is found primarily offshore. Blacktips, more common than spinners in Florida's coastal waters, range through warm and temperate waters worldwide, from Massachusetts to Brazil along the East Coast. Blacktips are also offshore sharks, but regularly come near shore in schools, following bait and small game fish such as Spanish mackerel, and even invade shallow flats regularly. Both spinners and blacktips seem to jump most often when hooked, so it may be a defensive or gullet-clearing behavior.