By C. Molly Smith
Updated August 12, 2014 at 12:00 PM EDT
Alien Sharks
Credit: Discovery Channel

Alien Sharks

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The ocean is a vast space, much of which has yet to be uncovered. Sharks are no exception, and what’s out there might will surprise you. Insert Alien Sharks: Return to the Abyss, which aired tonight on Discovery Channel and explored the mysterious world of alien sharks.

The special was led by shark researcher Paul Clerkin (pictured above holding a longnose velvet dogfish), a fourth year graduate student at San Jose University, studying marine science at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories with a focus on shark ecology at Pacific Shark Research Center; working with and discovering new shark species has been the focus of his research. In the special, Clerkin set out to uncover never-before-seen alien sharks, and in many ways his search proved successful.

Here, Clerkin talks about his passion—alien sharks—his new discoveries, and his holy grail: the bigeye raggedtooth shark.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How do you define an alien shark?

PAUL CLERKIN: Alien sharks have otherworldly features they’ve adapted from living in an environment so different than our own. Because we rarely have access to this world, they are very strange to our eyes. That is part of why I love studying them. Sharks are an incredibly diverse group, and there is an entire world below the surface that we have not explored. In an ever-shrinking world, it is exciting to venture to remote locations and discover species that have remained hidden for the last 400 million years. Weird sharks need love, too.

You are one of a select few to see these creatures in the wild. What is it like seeing these alien sharks up close, especially considering that most people will only see these creatures on-screen?

It is simply amazing. There is no other way to put it. The animals have such unique features, and as a shark scientist, I am thrilled to be fortunate enough to encounter and handle these beautiful monsters. There is something humbling about being the first human to ever interact with a species that has existed since before the dinosaurs.

What is the strangest species you encountered on this mission?

Oh, jeez. Don’t make me choose. There are so many strange and new species. The demon catsharks and lanternsharks are always favorites, but I did encounter some new species of ghost sharks that are new to science. I think I am most excited about a small species of sleeper shark that we found. I have never seen anything like it.

The discovery of the new species of ghost sharks was a really exciting moment in the special. What does that discovery mean to you, and what does it mean to deep-sea shark research?

Discovering new species is always exciting. That’s really why I am out there. It is exciting for science, but it is also the first step in protecting these mysterious animals. You can’t protect something if people don’t know it exists. I think the real take-away message is that there is so much to discover out there. I found just as many species on the second trip than I did on the first, totaling an estimated 15 new species. The count is an estimate right now until we can get genetic confirmation. But the fact that each trip has yielded so many unknown species really illustrates that the area is unexplored and needs further study and more attention. I can’t wait to get out there again.

The bigeye ragged-tooth shark was repeatedly referred to as your “holy grail” in the special. Why was finding this shark species in particular so important to you?

I really did have my heart set on finding the bigeye ragged-tooth shark, but it was a needle in a haystack and I knew that going in. The bigeye ragged-tooth shark (or Odontaspis noronhai) is a big, beautiful deep-sea weirdy, and it’s so rare that we really know almost nothing about it. It hasn’t been spotted in the Southern Indian Ocean before except for a set of jaws that were found on a beach and has been criticized as actual evidence of the species present in the area. I really wanted to prove its existence in the [Scripps Institution of Oceanography] SIO and collect some rare data to fill in what we know about the species. I would have loved to tag this deep-sea wanderer to see where it goes. We theorize that this species is global but rare, and I want to know how they utilize their habitat.

Though you didn’t come across a bigeye ragged-tooth shark, is this mission still a success?

This mission was amazing! Sure I would have loved to tag a bigeye ragged-tooth, but I saw so many firsts for science and collected new data on rare, poorly-understood sharks. There is so much potential for an expedition in the SIO that it is a huge success if I just see a sliver of what’s out there. I got more than I could have asked for. The potential for ocean discovery is limitless, and I don’t think I will ever finish exploring our oceans.

At the end of the episode, shark researcher Greg Stone commented on the new discoveries your research has brought and explained that between your two trips out to sea, you have discovered 3 percent of all shark species known. He also added that it’s all the more impressive because you are a graduate student. What does it mean to you to make such a great contribution to the study of sharks, especially at such a young age?

Oh, it’s amazing for me. I’m still a kid (in my mind) and I am making a serious contribution to science. It’s taken a lot of hard work, help, and luck to get where I am, and I absolutely love what I do. People don’t realize it, but we are living in a time of shark exploration. This decade has shown sharks discovered at a higher rate than ever before in human history. They’re out there. We just have to search for them.

Alien Sharks

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