“You’ll never go in the water again” … unless shark expert expert Elliot Sudal is there beside you. In which case, it may be hard to focus on the terrifying fish when there’s an eyeful of perfect abs on display.
The fit shark wrangler has caught and released “over 1,000” intimidating swimmers for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, he tells PEOPLE. However, Sudal, 29, has more recently become a growing social media sensation due to his Instagram account, which features a series of astonishing shark images — alongside his own stunning physique.
Sudal, whose sandy stomping grounds are the beaches of Nantucket and Sanibel Island, Florida, made waves over the weekend when he posted a photo and video of two 12-foot hammerhead sharks. After snapping the pictures, Sudal says he tagged the aquatic animals for research purposes and safely released them back into local waters. Clearly he has also caught quite a few new human fans — hook, line and sinker — as well.
“This is the third shark-related viral video I’ve had, it’s been wild per usual,” Sudal tells PEOPLE.
With over 4,000 likes on his “average” Instagram photo and hundreds of thousands of video views, we have a feeling Shark Week is going to take on a much sexier connotation this summer now that Sudal is on the scene.
PEOPLE caught up with the in-demand marine man to find out more about his life, his love of sharks and an unexpected meet-up with Vice President Mike Pence.
Did you love sharks as a kid? How did you become a shark wrangler?
I did think sharks were cool as kid, but I was more of a dinosaur guy, actually. I had a little pond in my back yard growing up and always loved to fish, but the shark wrangling began on Nantucket. I was catching bluefish from the beach, and one got chomped in half by a big shark on the way in. I threw the other half back out there on a wire leader, hooked it, and landed the 8-foot shark on the beach. I really had no idea what I was doing, so I just jumped in and grabbed it by the tail, removed the hook, and set it free.
Someone [recorded] the ordeal and sent it into the local newspaper, and an hour later it went viral … millions of views later, I just kind of became the “Nantucket shark wrestler” and have ran with it ever since. I studied biology in college, worked for a variety of environmental/conservation agencies, and learned everything there is to know about shark fishing. Over a thousand sharks later, I’ve learned a lot about them and participate in a variety of tagging programs. I’ve written a good deal of articles and given seminars on the topic, raised tens of thousands for charities donating shark trips, and enjoy every second of it.
What is your daily routine?
I get out shark tagging almost every day, especially in the summer on Nantucket. As the social media side of all this grows, I’ve picked up sponsors and done some TV stuff, which allows me more time to be out tagging. I do drive a boat in Florida, though part-time, for now. Other than that I get to the gym whenever possible, but yeah, I pretty much live on the beach.
Tell us about your most memorable catch.
My most memorable catch would probably be a 14-foot sawfish … super rare, kind of a mix between a swordfish, shark, and hedge trimmer. This guy ended up taking 11 hours and 10 minutes to reel in, which has to be some sort of record from the beach. The Vice President and his family came out to watch part of it. On top of that, it was a donation trip and raised around $10K for charity. Crazy day.
What is the catch and release program you’re involved in?
The National Marine Fisheries Service Apex Predator Tagging Program is one of the longest ongoing shark studies in the world. Basically, whenever I catch a shark I implant a tag at the base of the dorsal fin, record some data on the shark, and quickly release it. This program helps to understand migration patterns, life cycle, and where these sharks are reproducing. The more we learn about them, the better we can protect them, especially with the ocean being in such a time of change.
What beach do you call home?
I split my time between Nantucket and Sanibel island, which are both beautiful and loaded with sharks. I spent four summers in Alaska and lived on a sailboat in the Caribbean before that. I grew up in Connecticut and went to college there as well.
What does your family think of all the attention on you?
My mom is all excited, I think she’s just happy I’ve been able to follow my dream and do what I love. Friends screenshot me a lot of funny comments … this last hammerhead/abs photo definitely produced a few. It’s been cool, and I’m glad it’s been able to bring some attention back to shark tagging and conservation, which is really what’s important here.
Follow Sudal on Instagram at @acksharks for more incredible shark-tagging photos and videos.