Da-da Da-Dum: Sharks!

“We wanna see some sharks!” The refrain echoes from the throats of my two young charges into the vast lobby of the Science Museum of Virginia, loudly enough to make me second guess my decision to bring them. It’s a sunny Friday afternoon, and the three of us (combined age: 42) are ready for a guided tour of the Summer Fin Shark exhibit.

img_1246“We wanna see some sharks!” The refrain echoes from the throats of my two young charges into the vast lobby of the Science Museum of Virginia, loudly enough to make me second guess my decision to bring them. It’s a sunny Friday afternoon, and the three of us (combined age: 42) are ready for a guided tour of the Summer Fin Shark exhibit.

It turns out 5-year-olds tend to be a lot of talk when it comes to touching sharks.

The shark exhibit is located downstairs at the Science Museum in a window-lined room that opens out to the old train yard and that can be viewed from main level. I didn’t quite know what to expect from the exhibit, but expectations of huge Aquarium style tanks with 10 foot sharks fining past were clearly misplaced. It’s a science museum in Richmond, after all, not Sea World. And it’s a temporary exhibit.

The sharks (two white-spotted bamboo sharks, two shovel-head sharks, and one Atlantic stingray—a close relative to the shark) are housed in a shallow ‘touch tank’ about 3 and 1/2 feet off the ground. A second adjacent touch tank holds various other ocean critters: crabs (hermit and horseshoe), sea stars (i.e. starfishes for all of you who—like me—grew up before we knew they weren’t really fish), and whelks. All of the sea life is provided by a dealer from Virginia Beach (not fished out of the James, as some have assumed). Throughout the exhibit various other creatures may be swapped out or added.

Yes, the sharks are only a couple feet long, four to five times smaller than those you might see at an aquarium. A building with as grand an atrium as the Science Museum (formerly the Broad Street Railroad Station) creates a sort of funny juxtaposition with these small fish. Then again, I’ve never seen aquarium guests pet 8-10 foot sharks. At this exhibit you can pet the two-foot sharks, during two daily scheduled petting times (12-12:30 and 3-3:30). “Extend one finger,” the museum staff guides, “and slide it along the back of the shark.”

img_1245In case you’re wondering, a shark kinda feels like a wet nose. (It’s cartilage, right?) And it turns out, the idea of petting a shark is better in theory than in practice for five year olds, at least the ones I accompanied. The loud excitement from the museum’s lobby retreated into hands in pockets and sheepish head-shaking when face-to-face with the actual fish. Of course the IMAX movie and its school-bus sized sharks scouring the ocean for lunch can temper enthusiasm a bit.

The IMAX experience is top-notch. The movie is informative and entertaining, able to appeal to a wide variety of ages and intellects. It reinforces the main purpose of the exhibit: to dispel lingering misconceptions about sharks and raise awareness about their endangered status.

The movie’s narrator—a winsome tortoise—explains that Industrial Man is the only real threat to the shark population, but a grave one. The last decade, according to the film, has seen an approximately 80% reduction in the worldwide shark population.

img_1243The movie may be disappointing for Jaws devotees or those who prefer Fox’s When Animals Attack. But it features plenty of cellos (which, I think, producers of shark movies are contractually obligated to include) and remarkable videography of various shark species.

The exhibit is well designed to appeal to visitors of a wide variety, including stuff that grabs (and holds) the attention of 5-year-olds:

  • The biggest sharks at the Science Museum are made of sand. One hundred tons of sand were used to make the sculptures in a process that took about two weeks. There’s a time-lapse video of the sand sculpture building process online here.
  • The Tooth Sleuth exhibit has four sand trays with real buried shark teeth. (FYI, it’s more fun—or at least more rewarding—to search for teeth soon after museum staff has re-seeded the trays.)
  • A display near the touch tanks features a beachscape with various and sundry items—a cannonball, a box of nails, a (fake) human hand, a toaster, etc. —all but one rescued from the stomachs of sharks.

The Science Museum is happy, of course, to accommodate groups of visitors, be they from summer camps or schools (once the academic year resumes). An educator resource is available online. The Summer Fin Shark Exhibit runs through November 1.

If you go:

  • Check the website for details of hours, show times, and any changes in the exhibit specifics.
  • Remember that guests must be 40 inches tall (or more than twice as tall as the sharks) to pet them.
  • Definitely spend the extra money and watch the IMAX movie. The seasickness it induces won’t last long.
  • Plan on spending about 2 or 2 1/2 hours (including the 45 minutes for the movie) at the exhibit. Unless, of course, you’re attending with one of those guys who reads every single factoid in the museum, in which case you’re screwed and should plan on being there all day.
  • Make sure to check out the rest of the museum (or at least parts of it). It’s a treasure for Richmond that attracts people from all over Virginia (and sometimes even further).

Full Disclosure: Science Museum of Virginia is a sponsor of RVANews. But we wouldn’t have done a write-up of this exhibit if we didn’t think you should go check it out. That’s just not how we roll, guys.

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Erik Bonkovsky

3 comments on Da-da Da-Dum: Sharks!

  1. “Unless, of course, you’re attending with one of those guys who reads every single factoid in the museum, in which case you’re screwed and should plan on being there all day.”

    There is nothing wrong with those people, they are USUALLY WELL INFORMED AND GOOD TO HAVE AROUND. OK? JEEZ.

  2. Erik B on said:

    @Ross, Okay, DAD!

  3. I once went through a section of a museum with Ross and his dad called “Arms and Armament.” They read every. single. plaque.

    I WANTED TO DIE.

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