The word "shark" conjures up all sorts of imagery for people around the world. Missile shaped bodies and conical heads filled with teeth, roaring up from the deep while a John Williams soundtrack chums away in the background. While there are certainly a handful of the 400 known species of sharks that may fit that description, and rightfully ignite that type of excitement or fear that we associate with such animals, there are huge swaths of shark species that are the antithesis to the "JAWS" stereotype.
Enter the Swellshark; a potbellied, leopard spotted, cat-eyed, lounging little fellow who spends his days hiding his small body in the nooks and crannies of North-America's chilly west-coast rugged reefs. With a maximum length of only about four feet, the Swellshark is easy pickings for large predators in these frigid waters; from the hefty Sevengill and Sixgill sharks that prowl murky kelp forests and deep rocky bottoms, to the large, omni-present pinnipeds such as sealions and even harbor seals. The Swellshark's defense against such attacks is how he earned his name.
When feeling threatened, the Swellshark ducks into a rocky crevice or cave, and actually swells up its already portly body, inhaling water to fill his belly like a balloon, effectively wedging himself in to the cracks and preventing predators from pulling him out. Sometimes the Swellshark even bites his own tail, forming a ring with his body, making it harder for predators to grab on to him.
As a professional diver at Aquarium of the Bay in San Francisco, I worked with Swellsharks up close and personal in one of the massive tunnel tanks, having to feed them by hand every other day. They had a favorite spot in a rocky grotto where they'd all congregate, and so I'd swim over, and have to gently pull each one out of their hiding spots, cradle them in my arms, and wave chopped bits of capelin or small bits of mackerel in front of their rostrum (nose) and wait, but not for long. They'd almost always inhale them right out of my hands, then grumpily swim back down to their preferred nook. Definitely one of my favorite parts of the day.
This illustration was originally done as a custom t-shirt design job for the Seymour Long Marine Discovery Center in Santa Cruz, California. Their icon animal is the Swellshark, which they have many of on display in various aquariums, and even in their awesome touch-pool, where excited patrons can feel their sandpaper skin.