Atlanta's Sharks: Watch, respect them

Opening today, the exhibit was developed in Australia and moved into the 10,000 square feet at Georgia Aquarium. Some of its first views include intimidatingly large shark models, a row of shark jaws, piles of shark teeth — and the message that sharks ought to be more afraid of humans than we are of them.

“Planet Shark” curators Craig Thorburn and Mike Bhana dedicated an entire gallery to fishing practices and consumer products that lead to the deaths of about 100 million sharks every year, according to Oceana, an ocean conservation organization.

“Sharks can easily sustain cultural uses by Pacific Islanders,” Thorburn explained this week as they finished building the exhibits. “They didn’t reckon on us, our fishing methods, our factory ships.”

For Thorburn, “Planet Shark” is a competitor in the race to capture imaginations. Sharks are an exciting, mysterious villain for movies and magazine covers, but in the United States you’re far more likely to be killed by a deer than a shark. His thought is, if young, curious minds can learn about sharks, how they’re researched and how they’re portrayed, maybe their population will increase.

“Watch them, enjoy them, respect them,” Thorburn said. “They’re not meant to be cuddled, but they have just as much right to be here as we do.”

Not that the exhibit ignores their dangerous and predatory qualities. It includes the remains of wet suits and surfboards after shark encounters and it meticulously documents the number of people killed or attacked. One gallery includes the miniature cage and diver doll used in “Jaws” to make the shark appear larger.

Sharks remain a difficult animal to study, moving quickly through huge sections of water. One piece in the exhibit shows how scientists tracked a shark (affectionately named Bruce) as he swam the coast of southern Australia, revealing more in months than humans had learned in hundreds of years.

A ticket to the exhibit includes admission to the aquarium, where visitors can see whale sharks, sand tiger sharks and others — more than 70 sharks in 14 species. “You’re going to go from a fun, interactive exhibit and see things shown in a different way,” aquarium president and Chief Operating Officer Anthony Godfrey said when the exhibit was announced this summer. “Then you’re going to be able to go out into the aquarium and see live sharks. By the time you get out there, you’ll have learned more about sharks.”

“Planet Shark” shows life-size projections that reveal how sharks move and interactive pieces that provide information as deep as a visitor wants to go. Thorburn, a curator for Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World in New Zealand and the Melbourne Aquarium, brims with excitement when he shows the predator and prey “chasing each other through years of evolution” — a frozen mako shark, “the Ferrari of the shark world,” and a bluefin tuna, which developed to dodge its speedy predator.

Sharks have been around for 440 million years, he explained, and for most of the time, they were the fittest, and that decided what survived in the ocean.

Now that humans are making the life-and-death decisions, the Georgia Aquarium might be the place to help people make better ones, he hopes.

“We want them to think of sharks, talk about them,” Thorburn said. “The more allies they have, the better chance to survive.”

Howard Pousner contributed to this article.

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