Be scared for sharks, not of sharks, says aquarium

The Two Oceans Aquarium’s newest exhibition, Shark Alley, is alongside a tank featuring five ragged-tooth sharks.

The Two Oceans Aquarium and global conservation organisation Save Our Seas Foundation (SOSF) opened an interactive exhibition, called Shark Alley, on Tuesday October 26.

The exhibition, in the alley right next to the Save our Seas tank featuring five ragged-tooth sharks, aims to change people’s perception of sharks, and gain a new appreciation for their roles in the marine eco-system.

The interactive exhibits provide hands-on learning experiences, with anatomy, pictures, articles, artefacts and interactive displays of sharks – animals that have inhabited the oceans for around 400 million years.

It also details specific biological aspects of sharks, with information about their senses, fins, teeth, respiration and reproduction. There are also highlights of how specialised and effective they are, as well as how this has put sharks in direct competition with, and at the mercy of, humans.

Save our Seas Foundation director gets ready to officially open Shark Alley on Tuesday October 26. With her is Two Oceans Aquarium CEO Michael Farquar.

CEO of the Two Oceans Aquarium, Michael Farquhar said the exhibition took months to complete as all the fish were moved to the Two Oceans Exhibit, and the tank was emptied and cleaned.

“For months, visitors asked about the sharks – if you want to know how much people love sharks, take them away for a few months,” he joked.

He said when the aquarium reopened in September 2020 after closing for the first time in 25 years at the start of the hard lockdown in March 2020, they hoped that they would find a sponsor for the shark exhibition, as visitor numbers were low and the aquarium was just about breaking even financially.

“We were delighted to partner with the Save our Seas Foundation – like-minded people who work towards the same values as the aquarium. If this partnership didn’t happen, we would be waiting for some sort of new normal to earn the money to open Shark Alley, so we are immensely grateful.“

He said the five ragged-tooth sharks were females, as males were a little more difficult to tame, and the sharks were kept for a maximum of five years, until they are tagged and freed, and tracked for data for a few years.

Dr Clova Mabin, director of the Save our Seas Foundation local branch, the Shark Education Centre based in Kalk Bay, attended the opening.

Visitors exploring Shark Alley.

She said after years of work and collecting data, the foundation opened it’s Shark Education Centre in Kalk Bay in 2008. The education centre connects the public to the ocean by providing interactive experiences of local marine ecosystems and everything about sharks.

“I believe that this new Shark Alley exhibit will play a similar role to the work we do at the foundation, and will ultimately encourage aquarium visitors to develop a love for these charismatic animals. Given the synergies between our organisations, I was very honoured to be asked to contribute to the development of Shark Alley and it is great to see it come to fruition and open for everyone to enjoy and learn from.”

She said Shark Alley was named for a thin stretch of water between the two Islands of Dyer Island and Geyser Rock near Gansbaai where sharks hunt seals – this was where she experienced her first encounters with great white sharks in their natural habitats. All the data collected over six months in Gaansbaai was sent to an international database to better track the movements and behaviour of sharks.

The Two Oceans Aquarium’s communications and sustainability manager Helen Lockhart, who helped create Shark Alley, said it was one of the most challenging exhibitions because of people’s relationship with sharks being that of fear, and they wanted to do something different to change people’s perception of these creatures.

The team who helped put together Shark Alley are Claire Taylor, Helen Lockhart and Jessica Sloan.

She said after wide consultation with environmentalists and conservationists, they decided they would focus not on the fear, but rather on the fascination and wonder of sharks.

“Through millions of years of evolution, sharks have adapted and continue to adapt to their ocean habitat. Some of the survival strategies they have developed are exactly what makes them vulnerable to exploitation by the most efficient and dangerous predator of all – humans. We cannot continue to over-exploit, outwit and misunderstand sharks.

“If they are to survive globally, they need our support and love.”

While putting together the exhibit, she said, they looked at the language, energy and music they would use in the hope they would not portray sharks in a vicious way, but would leave visitors with a new appreciation for sharks, how vulnerable they are to humans, and how well they have adapted to their environments despite the threats they were facing.

She said people feed their own fears of sharks, and urged everyone to change this.

It is estimated that 100 million sharks are killed annually and some species have declined by 90% in recent years. Sharks are targeted for their meat, fins, skin, teeth and cartilage in commercial fishing operations, and are also caught as bycatch.