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First look at Aquarium’s new “Planet Shark” exhibit

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Curator Craig Thorburn works on a display of a frozen mako shark and bluefin tune in "Planet Shark: Predator or Prey" at Georgia Aquarium. AJC/Phil Skinner

The world’s largest fish tank will soon offer visitors the world’s first look at a new exhibit, “Planet Shark: Predator or Prey.”

The new Georgia Aquarium exhibit opens Oct. 3, but we got the first look at it this week. (As always, I enjoy an up-close view of shark teeth and Shop-Vacs.)

It was developed in Australia and  moved into the Aquarium’s 10,000 square foot exhibition space, where its first views include intimidatingly large shark models, a row of shark jaws, piles of shark teeth — and the message that sharks ought to be more afraid of humans than we are of them.

“Planet Shark” curators Craig Thorburn and Mike Bhana dedicated an entire gallery to fishing practices and consumer products that lead to the deaths of about 100 million sharks every year, according to Oceana, an ocean conservation organization.

“Sharks can easily sustain cultural uses by Pacific Islanders,” Thorburn explained as we walked through the exhibit. “They didn’t reckon on us, our fishing methods, our factory ships.”

For Thorburn, “Planet Shark” is a competitor in the race to capture imaginations. Sharks are an exciting, mysterious villain for movies and magazine covers, but in the U.S., you’re far more likely to be killed by a deer than a shark. His thought: if young, curious minds can learn about sharks, how they’re researched and how they’re portrayed, maybe their population will increase.

“Watch them, enjoy them, respect them,” Thorburn said. “They’re not meant to be cuddled, but they have just as much right to be here as we do.”

Not that the exhibit ignores their dangerous and predatory qualities. It includes suits and surfboards remaining after shark encounters and it meticulously documents the number of people killed or attacked. One gallery includes the miniature cage and diver doll used in “Jaws” to make the notorious shark appear larger, yet another includes the actual suits and cages that divers use to get closer to the animals.

Thorburn is giddy in his enthusiasm about sharks, and will openly say which ones are likely to kill you, and which ones have gotten a bad rep because we’re invading their space. He’ll warn over and over about how dangerous they are, but admits that he loves to spend time in the water with them, because “you just can’t help yourself.” (Yeaaaah…)

Enthusiastic or not, sharks remain a difficult animal to study, moving quickly through huge sections of water. One piece in the exhibit shows how scientists tracked a shark (affectionately named Bruce) as he swam up and down the coast of southern Australia, revealing more in months than humans had learned in hundreds of years.

A ticket to the exhibit includes admission to the Aquarium, where visitors can see whale sharks, sand tiger sharks, great hammerhead sharks and others — more than 70 sharks in 14 species.

“You’re going to go from a fun, interactive exhibit and see things shown in a different way,” Aquarium president and chief operating officer Anthony Godfrey said when the exhibit was announced this summer. “Then you’re going to be able to go out into the Aquarium and see live sharks. By the time you get out there, you’ll have learned more about sharks.”

“Planet Shark” shows life-size projections that reveal how sharks move and interactive pieces that provide information as deep as a visitor wants to go.

Thorburn, a curator for Kelly Tarlton’s Underwater World in New Zealand and the Melbourne Aquarium, brims with excitement when he shows the predator and prey “chasing each other through years of evolution,” — a frozen mako shark, “the Ferrari of the shark world,” and a bluefin tuna, which developed to dodge its speedy predator.

Sharks have been around for 440 million  years, he explains, and for most of them, they were the fit creature to decided what survived in the ocean.

Now that humans are making the life-and-death decisions, Georgia Aquarium might be the place to help people make better ones, he hopes.

“We want to them to think of sharks, talk about them,” Thorburn said. “The more allies they have, the better chance to survive.”

See it: “Shark Week” addicts, shark-phobes seeking to recover on dry land, kiddos with open minds

Skip it: Genuine galeophobics and selachophobics who can’t handle being in a room with even a lot of fiberglass sharks, kiddos prone to “Jaws”-style nightmares

Want to go? “Planet Shark: Predator or Prey” opens Oct. 3. Tickets include Aquarium admission. $31.50, $26.25 for ages 65 and older, $23.50 ages 5-15. Georgia Aquarium, 225 Baker St. 404-581-4000, georgiaaquarium.org.

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[...] For families: “Planet Shark: Predator or Prey“, noon-6 p.m., Georgia Aquarium, Atlanta. Read more. [...]

[...] For families: “Planet Shark: Predator or Prey” opens, 9 a.m.-6 p.m., Georgia Aquarium, Atlanta. First look at the exhibit. [...]