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The Ocean's Most Misunderstood Creature

Explore Science of Sharks at the New England Aquarium

Jaws may have traumatized a generation of beachgoers, but the New England Aquarium's new exhibit, Science of Sharks, endeavors to repair sharks' reputation and educate visitors about these fascinating creatures.

"Sharks are in great peril," explains Media Relations Director Tony LaCasse. "This is in part a function of vilification and commercial exploitation. Unlike other fish species, which lay from thousands to millions of eggs at a time, it is difficult for sharks to reestablish their populations because they only give birth to a handful of offspring at a time and it takes sharks a lot longer to reach sexual maturity than other fish species."

Science of Sharks explores the vital roles that sharks play in the marine ecosystem and separates fact from fiction about these highly misunderstood creatures. The exhibit showcases a wide range of species in new tanks that allow visitors to get up close to the sharks and also extends the popular Shark and Ray Touch Tank, offering visitors the opportunity to touch the backs of small sharks and rays. 

The exhibit also effectively engages with new technologies to enhance the visitor experience and more effectively educate guests. The new Sharkwall, for example, uses giant screens on several adjacent walls to display the photography and video footage of National Geographic underwater photographer Brian Skerry, one of the leading underwater photographers in the world. "For kids, this is one of the highlights," LaCasse says. "All of a sudden, they're two feet from a shark on the wall. It sends a jolt through their bodies."

While the exhibit is a wonderful experience for children, visitors of any age can find something to enjoy about Science of Sharks. "We have a diverse audience," LaCasse explains. "We have kids as young as preschoolers as well as a big adult population. Half of our visitors are adult-only parties, so we need to address the content desire that they have as well."

One of the major themes of Science of Sharks is that much of the fear of sharks is unfounded. "One of the biggest misconceptions that visitors have is that sharks are a threat to people," LaCasse says. "There are more than five hundred species of sharks around the world, but 80% are four feet or shorter. We have not had a shark death in Massachusetts in over eighty years. That was in 1936 when a boy from Dorchester was swimming off the coast of Mattapoiset. But given his injuries, he probably would have survived had that happened today." As LaCasse points out, "you're more likely to die from a deer striking your car on the way to the beach than you are from a shark."

Even people with a passionate interest in sharks may learn something new about these fascinating creatures. "Sharks have an extra sense called electroreception," LaCasse explains. "A lot of their hunting is done in poor light, so they have a couple of organs that allow them to feel the electricity created by different biological processes. They can feel the pulse created by an organism's neuroactivity and can find the ray buried in the mud on the bottom of the ocean. It just goes to show you that humans don't have the monopoly on unusual and cool adaptations."

After a trip to Science of Sharks, visitors may never look at sharks the same way again. And for the exhibit's organizers, that is a great thing. "We give people facts and give them the science around these animals. We tell engaging stories and share a lot of information," LaCasse says. "We're really trying to create awareness which will, in turn, create empathy. Hopefully, people realize that they can make choices and that they can advocate around things."

-- By Ettractions Digital Content Editor EMILY JARMOLOWICZ

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