You could call it an unfortunate misunderstanding. However, its impact is as great as the oceans.
I’m referring to inspire terror sharks, which, according to the American Museum of Natural History, stem largely from ignorance, as well as “a hundred years of hype.” (“Jaws” notwithstanding, shark attacks are rare and often occur when the fish mistake a person for something far more delightful, such as a seal.) As this Manhattan museum’s new exhibit on these extraordinary creatures playfully states: “They its just not that in you.”
But the 8,500-square-foot show “Sharks,” which opened Wednesday featuring life-size models, hands-free interactives, stunning visuals and sobering warnings about extinction, offers many reasons why you should be in it.
“We wanted to convey the elegance, beauty and quality of sharks,” said Lauri Halderman, the museum’s vice president of exhibits. “And get rid of the fear factor,” although, she added, “we’re playing with the fear factor a bit.”
They sure do. One of the first objects in the show’s gallery, which has the dark, mysterious feel of an underwater cave, is a model of the giant upper portion of a megalodon, an ancient shark often referred to as the Tyrannosaurus rex of the seas ( although his bite force, up to 41,000 pounds, was much worse). At about 15 meters in length, this massive predator died out about 3.6 million years ago — except in Hollywood, which resurrected it for the 2018 cheap thriller movie “The Meg.”
With its jaws gaping, the exhibit’s megalodon serves as a kind of smiling salute to a family reunion of not only sharks, but also their closest relatives: skates, chimeras, and rays. These species, all fish with distinctive skeletons made of cartilage covered in rock-hard tiles — a combination more flexible than bone — have ancestors that evolved 450 million years ago, long before the doomed dinosaurs.
“We wanted to present shark evolution because no one has ever really done that in a very comprehensive way,” said John Sparks, a curator in the museum’s division of ichthyology, the zoological branch that studies fish. Based on the work of the museum’s curator emeritus John Maisey, “Sharks” trace this lineage with fossils, including a partial specimen of the helicoprion, an extinct prehistoric species whose buzzsaw-like teeth were arranged intricately in a spiral. (On Saturdays at 10 a.m., the museum presents “The Scientist Is In: Ancient Sharks,” a free virtual family program that explores these ancestors.)
“Sharks” also includes over 25 other detailed models ranging from the dwarf lantern shark, smaller than a human hand, to the 65-foot whale shark, which looks intimidating but only eats small creatures like plankton and krill.
“How did sharks survive all these extinction events?” said Sparks, who curated the show. “Well, it’s probably because of the diversity you see here.”
That means diverse abilities that rival those of a team of Marvel superheroes. The Greenland shark, which can live for more than 500 years, contains a chemical that acts as an antifreeze. The swell shark, a fluorescent species, has areas of skin that glow green in sunlight. A thresher shark can kill prey with a hit of 80 miles per hour with its tail. And all species have something that sounds like something out of a Harry Potter novel: ampoules of Lorenzini, receptors that respond to the electric fields that all animals generate.
“They can detect very weak electrical signals, allowing them to find buried prey,” Sparks said.
“Sharks” explores these attributes through digital exhibits that are both interactive and, in response to Covid-19, completely contactless. By simply waving your hand over sensors – the technological equivalent of Lorenzini’s ampoules – you can play games such as matching different sharks to their habitats or matching land animals with shark species that use the same defense tactics.
You will also find cinematic gems. In addition to a wall-sized screen showing continuous footage from Discovery’s ‘Shark Week’, the exhibit features many clips of extraordinary shark behavior. I watched a goblin shark suddenly thrust out its slingshot-like jaw at a speed of 3 meters per second to catch prey, and spinner sharks performing a deadly ballet: they enter a school of smaller fish, pirouettes at top speed, biting constantly as they spinning around.
The exhibit also allows visitors to mimic a shark. A kid-appealing interactive lets you take on the perspective of a hammerhead shark as you hunt along the ocean floor. At two stations, you can look into a screen to see your own head replaced with that of one of the species from the show. (With my notepad, I became a studious-looking thresher.)
“It’s frivolous, it’s fun,” Halderman said of these displays. “On the other hand, it’s just interesting to build empathy.”
And why do sharks need our empathy? Because they are largely helpless against the much more ruthless predators reading this. It is estimated that human actions such as overfishing, habitat destruction and shrimp fishing — an unsustainable practice that inadvertently traps many other marine animals — kill more than 100 million sharks a year. (About a third of all species are now endangered.) In contrast, sharks kill about 10 people each year.
“Even if you’re around great whites and these sharks that occasionally attack humans — tiger sharks, oceanic whitetips — 99.9 percent of the time, they won’t bother you,” Sparks said. On numerous occasions, having carried fish specimens, he has been “bitten” by small reef sharks, but “I’m not talking to them at all,” he said cheerfully.
When in the water, the exhibit advises leaving sleeping sharks. And if one behaves aggressively, try to maintain eye contact. (They prefer stealth attacks.) Shots to the muzzle and eyes can also deter them.
Much more helpful, though, is the show’s shark conservation information. Regulating fishing practices, banning the catching of shark fins for soup, establishing shark sanctuaries and promoting responsible ecotourism could help restore their numbers.
“This is an amazing group of organisms that have been around for a very long time, and it would be devastating to lose them,” Sparks said.
It would also harm people. As apex predators, sharks play a critical role in marine ecosystems. When they become extinct, their herbivorous prey multiplies. Decreased vegetation leads to more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which accelerates climate change. A decline in shark populations also limits the study of these species, whose characteristics have been modified to develop better boats and high-quality swimwear. So while sharks may not look as cuddly as giant pandas, the exhibit organizers want us to cherish them just as much.
As Halderman put it, “If people come in thinking, ‘Oh wow, sharks are so dangerous’, and they leave thinking, ‘Oh wow, sharks are so endangered’, then I think we’re all doing a good job.” have delivered.”
Until August 14 at the American Museum of Natural History, Central Park West, Manhattan; 212-769-5100, amnh.org. Time cards are required along with proof of vaccination. (Children ages 5 to 11 must be able to show evidence of at least one vaccine dose.)