On Saturday, July 13 and Sunday 14, Shark Con will return to the Florida Fairgrounds Expo Hall in Tampa, Florida for its sixth consecutive year: promoting shark conservation, demystifying stigmas surrounding the animals, and hosting an entertaining weekend for visitors of all stripes.
Article by John Tapley; photos courtesy Shark Con
Shark Con 2019 offers a bevy of shark-themed amusements and educational opportunities, packed into just two days. Visitors can engage with over 15 exhibits, ranging from movie memorabilia to interactive aquarium displays; from mermaid encounters to marine rescue missions.
The living sharks museum exhibit is a two-part display, which features shark fossils and teeth (including some from gone but not forgotten species) and several props and pieces from Jaws, including the movie’s iconic “Beach Closed” sign and a prosthetic head from one of the film’s grislier scenes.
Shark Con celebrants will dive alongside (and through the eyes of) sharks and witness their day-to-day lives in simulated, virtual reality environments provided by three separate groups: Discovery’s Shark Week, Florida Aquarium, and Sharks4Kids. Each VR experience shows a unique outlook on sharks, providing a variety of perspectives and angles.
Submersible watercraft hit the center stage through the Sea Breacher exhibit with a special vessel decorated like a shark. The submersible spectacle also promotes Shark Allies and their mission to promote legislation benefitting sharks and their natural environments.
In addition to the VR exhibit, Florida Aquarium will present a large swath of shark info, ranging from megalodon teeth, trivia games, and more.
Discovery’s Shark Week exhibit will highlight shoots and details on the popular program, and will include show stars Joe Romeiro and Dr. Neil Hammerschlag. Dr. Hammerschalg’s University of Miami Shark Research and Conservation Program team will be in attendance, and booth visitors should be on the lookout for giveaways.
A shark tooth sand dig, courtesy SeaWorld, is designed for adolescents and will let young marine biologists and paleontologists dig for discoveries and allow them to return home with a souvenir. At a separate exhibit, kids can also enjoy a 22-foot shark slide, bolting through a large, toothy grin, and a Spongebob-themed obstacle course.
Shark Con encourages non-divers young and old to adopt scuba diving and expand their horizons. The Go Dive Now Pool unveils the world of scuba through a safe, confined experience within a 30-foot, 15,000-gallon pool; a whole assortment of the latest scuba diving gear will be available, and the pool will be operated by a staff of professional instructors and dive leaders from nearby dive centers. The Go Dive Now Pool experience is open to visitors 10 and older.
“For me, it’s one of the most important things to have there,” says Steward. “As an avid scuba diver, to me, the easiest way to get people interested and passionate about the oceans is to get them underwater and diving. It’s hard to appreciate and want to protect something that you’ve never really experienced – more so than watching it on TV. Scuba diving has always been an integral part of the show.”
The Ocean’s Daughter Conservation Alliance exhibit will highlight facts and figures on the world’s oceans, presented by Marcelline (French for “Defender of the Seas”) Mermaids. The alliance raises money for ocean conservation and education to local communities, making a partnership with Shark Con a natural fit.
Marine mammals are the closest related sea creatures to humans and rescuing them from peril is a critical part of many ocean-driven organizations. The Clearwater Marine Aquarium will present a display and demonstrations highlighting marine mammal rescue operations, including the rehabilitation process.
Mote Marine Aquarium and Laboratory representatives will present all sorts of artifacts and fossils while answering questions at the booth. An aquarium and touch tank for kids rounds out the experience.
Throughout Shark Con, visitors can participate in a treasure hunt activity centered on the show’s partnerships with over 20 conservation organizations, which include Sharks4Kids, Shark Allies, Shark Angels, Fins Attached, SCUBAnauts International, Wildlife Voice, Sea Shephard and The Shark Conservation Fund.
“We put together a treasure map that has the points of the non-profit conservation groups with we work with. The person has to go to that booth, complete whatever activity they’re asking to do – trivia, how to dig plastic out of the ocean, beach cleanups – and once they do that, they get a stamp. Once they’ve collected all the stamps, they can bring them back to the front, turn in their treasure map, and get a treasure: all sort of things from Save the Sharks bracelets to Shark Con stickers and magnets.”
Eckerd College’s Shark Conservation Center will explore the inner workings of sharks through dissection exhibits, using the same specimens used in the classroom.
Similarly, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission will provide a tactile experience with a touch tank and aquarium, and also present the biology of sharks through dissected examples.
New to Shark Con 2019 will be the Zephyrhills® Water Adventures exhibit, which teaches the importance of water conservation and how run off affects aquatic environments.
“I think it looks really interesting,” says Steward. “It’s a large exhibit that goes into a lot of depth. A lot of times people, especially those living on the coast, don’t realize the things we do and how they affect the oceans, estuaries, and even the water we drink.”
All throughout both days (generally running at the first of each hour), guest speakers and presenters will share their work in solidifying shark conservation; Q&A opportunities will follow each presentation. OCEARCH will present recent accomplishments in its mission to promote shark conservation; and on Saturday at 5:30 p.m., will host an exclusive, after-hours VIP presentation, where the team will expound on the organization’s origins, including a panel discussion and photo opportunities. The Saturday night presentation will require a separate ticket cost beyond general admission.
Movie and cartoon buffs will want to keep an eye on key presentations during the weekend shark celebration.
Jaws fanatics will sink their teeth into presentations with film legend Joseph M. Alves, Steven Spielberg’s assistant director and designer of the titular shark; actress Susan Backlinie, who played the monster’s first victim; and actor Jeffrey Voorhees. Adding to the jawesome panel will be the director of Jaws documentary The Shark is Still Working, Erik Hollander, and author Michael A. Smith who wrote Jaws 2: The Making of the Hollywood Sequel.
Ghostbuster and King Poseidon Ernie Hudson will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the film Shark Attack alongside a film writer and director Bob Misiorowski. Olympic Gold Medalist Kurt Angle, who appeared in the shlocky Sharknado 2: The Second One, will be in attendance during Saturday.
Younger audiences (or those young at heart) will want to meet with two personalities from the iconic cartoon that features a sponge living in a pineapple under the sea. Spongebob Squarepants voice performers Rodger Bumpass (Squidward Tentacles) and Lori Alan (Pearl Krabbs) will be available to sign autographs, take photos, and share their talents: even recording voice mail messages for convention goers.
No convention would be complete without vendors, and Shark Con will feature representatives from ocean-themed organizations and companies. Local dive shops will showcase dive gear, classes, and trips; artists will sell their works.
“You name it! If it’s ocean-themed and there’s something to sell, we have it there!” Steward exclaims. “I go out and vet them, so we have [vendors] that are selling positive things and most of them end up contributing to ocean conservation and working with different groups. If you want something shark related, then there’s somebody there selling it.”
A Convention with a Cause
Ultimately, these engaging, interactive pursuits serve shark conservation and advocacy, which has been the core purpose of Shark Con since its inaugural event in 2013; and that message of community and public outreach continues to flourish each year.
“My inspiration was to see how we could reach more people when it came to conservation efforts: saving sharks from becoming endangered and eventually extinct. How could we do that and create a community that didn’t just include professionals but enthusiasts and [everyday] people as well. I took the idea of a Comic Con aspect to bring in a new audience of people [whose interaction with] the water maybe only watching Sharknado or Shark Week. They can come in, have a fun time seeing the stars, and also stay for the scientist presentations: learning the difference between reality and the media.”
This distinction between fiction and real life is immensely important: while sharks are fearsome, mighty creatures, they’re a far cry from the bloodthirsty, vindictive killers often seen on the silver screen.
“It’s important because no one is going to want to protect something they think is out to get them, and that’s what’s portrayed in the media – and don’t get me wrong, one of the things that got me into marine biology was seeing Jaws as a little kid. Knowing that fiction and reality are two different things, and teaching them the important role sharks play as apex predators (and maintaining the ocean’s) health is so important. Removing an apex predator from an ecosystem is the beginning of the end.”
With a handful of days until launch, Shark Con is shaping to be one of 2019’s most engaging ocean and conservation events in the U.S. With a wide variety of exhibits, events, and activities for guests of all interests, the convention carries a might that reflects the animal it protects.
For more details on Shark Con 2019, including a comprehensive list of vendors and speaker schedules, go to www.shark-con.com.