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Memphis Flyer Jaws Are Us

According To A New Exhibit At The Pink Palace, Sharks Aren't So Scary -- But Watch Out For Those Humans

By Debbie Gilbert

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  Not surprisingly for creatures whose teeth resemble daggers, sharks have a reputation as monsters of the deep. And when the blockbuster movie Jaws was released in 1975, our vague uneasiness about the world's largest and scariest fish escalated into a full-blown national phobia. Now, scientists and environmentalists are diligently trying to give the shark an image makeover.

They've had some success -- witness the Time magazine cover story in August -- promoting the notion that sharks have more to fear from us than we do from them. That idea may be hard to accept when you're staring down the toothy maw of a great white shark, but it's true: These much-misunderstood animals are valuable to the ecosystem and harmless (mostly) to humans.

Not convinced? Then you should pay a visit to the Memphis Pink Palace Museum, which is currently offering a double dose of shark lore in the form of both an exhibit and an IMAX film. On display now through January 4th is "Sharks! Fact and Fantasy," developed by the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

As you walk through the entrance to this exhibit, you're greeted by an overhead diorama of 18 life-size shark models, which appear to be swimming in the air. The largest of these is the 12-foot great white shark (a species that has been known to grow to nearly twice that length), but he's small fry compared to some of his ancestors. Stand next to the fossilized jaws of Carcharocles megalodon and be grateful this prehistoric behemoth isn't around anymore -- it could swallow your entire family in one gulp.

Stranger things have been found in the bellies of sharks, and this exhibit displays a collection of such items, including hubcaps, a fur coat, a horse's skull, and a full suit of 17th-century armor (honest!).

You won't learn much, however, merely from viewing an assortment of curiousities, and that's why much of the exhibit is hands-on and interactive. For example, in the section on shark anatomy, you'll learn that sharks have a special sensory organ that detects low-voltage electricity, and they find their prey (including humans) through the vibes given off.

The exhibit acknowledges that shark attacks do occur, and it shows the devices -- such as protective diving suits, repellents, and a walk-in shark cage -- that humans have invented to avoid such incidents.

But let's face it: We're morbidly fascinated with sharks because they make us feel vulnerable. Sharks kill, violently and efficiently. To deal with our fear of these predators, we've created myths and legends, and the exhibit explores the ways sharks have been portrayed in our culture -- in literature, movies, and cartoons (including a selection of panels from Gary Larson's The Far Side).

The most prevalent misconception about sharks is that they exist primarily to eat humans. In truth, sharks attack about 100 people a year, while we kill up to 100 million sharks annually. Not to dismiss the terror that those 100 people undoubtedly felt, it does seem that the odds are in the humans' favor.

Why do we kill so many sharks -- far more than a species can replace through natural reproduction? As the exhibit explains, we take sharks for their meat, their fins (which are used to make a popular soup in Asia), their hides, and their cartilage, which is alleged to cure arthritis and cancer, though there's no medical proof that this is true.

In pursuing sharks to extinction, we may be doing more harm than we can imagine, for the shark is an apex predator, perched at the top of the sea's food chain, where it keeps the populations of all other ocean species in balance.

You can see some of these remarkable predators close-up, in a tank full of live leopard sharks just outside the Pink Palace's exhibit hall. But if you want to get one-on-one with the really big species -- the ones that could have you for lunch if they chose to -- you'll need to see the museum's latest IMAX film, Search for the Great Sharks, which opens this Saturday, October 18th, and runs through February 6th.

Produced by the same IMAX team that brought you Ring of Fire, last year's exciting film about volcanoes, Search for the Great Sharks takes you on three oceanic expeditions to study these animals at close range. You'll see blue sharks engaged in a feeding frenzy off the coast of California; whale sharks -- not only the largest shark, but the largest fish in the world, growing 40 to 60 feet long -- near Australia; and of course, the notorious great white sharks.

The latter provide some of the film's biggest thrills as they try to attack diver and shark expert Rodney Fox, who surrounds himself with a clear plastic tube so the sharks will think he's unprotected. Not so gullible, the sharks circumvent the barrier, and one almost severs Fox's air hose. It's all in a day's work for Fox, who was nearly bitten in half by a great white shark in 1963 and has the scar -- 462 stitches -- to prove it.

In fact, Fox is either utterly fearless or has a death wish; you'll see him survive several life-threatening predicaments in this movie. But there are moments of calm amid the terror -- as when we watch a blue shark give birth. Fox also gets towed around by a gentle whale shark (a species we have no reason to fear; it eats only plankton), joined by 72-year-old Dr. Eugenie Clark, one of the world's foremost authorities on sharks (she's known as the "Shark Lady").

Search for the Great Sharks can be a wild ride, but thanks to the audacity of the IMAX filmmakers, you can get in-your-face with the sharks while staying safe and dry.

For information about the exhibit "Sharks! Fact and Fantasy," call 320-6320. For tickets to the IMAX film, call 320-6362.


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