WASHINGTON – Visitors can shake Sherman the shark's fin or spin the “Wheel of Doom” in Sherman's Lagoon this weekend,during the 11th annual Shark Weekend at the National Aquarium.
As part of a shark-conservation effort,the nation's oldest aquarium acquired more space in the basement of the Department of Commerce for an interactive and educational activities room with an underwater atmosphere.
The theme,”Sherman's Lagoon,” was conceived by syndicated cartoonist,Jim Toomey,the creator of Sherman the shark.
“This room is really a culmination of a lifetime fascination with me with sharks. When I was 9 or 10,‘Jaws' came out,and I think I was the only one in the theater rooting for the shark,” Toomey said.
“Sherman's Lagoon” first appeared as a newspaper comic strip in 1991 and is now featured regularly in 250 newspapers in 30 countries. Sherman's Lagoon,the exhibit,will remain open as a permanent exhibit after Shark Weekend ends Sunday.
Toomey has been working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for more than 10 years to raise awareness for what he considers to be the ocean's most misunderstood animal.
“I think sharks occupy a dark part of our imagination,” Toomey said. “In the public imagination,they have been sea monsters for thousands of years.”
Cartoon drawings of Sherman and his sea friends surround the room and bring attention to the many dangers sharks face. The “Wheel of Doom” is a spinning pie chart listing the most critical dangers,such as overfishing and shark finning,the harvest of sharks' fins for soup,which kills the shark. Toomey said it is difficult for people to imagine the threats to sharks compared to other more cuddly endangered species.
“I think people care about things they are more aware of,like tigers and pandas and the rain forest,” Toomey said. “There isn't a lot of existence value to things in the ocean because you just don't see it.”
In March 2009,the House of Representatives easily passed the Shark Conservation Act,which would make shark finning illegal at sea,but the bill is stalled in the Senate. Toomey said it is urgent to pass the bill before the Senate's Aug. 9 recess.
Bob Ramin,the aquarium's executive director,said he hopes the exhibit will attract more visitors to the aquarium to learn about shark conservation in a unique way.
“People are coming to aquariums to get some direction about how to change behaviors. We think these are ways that are easy,non-threatening and fun to learn about,even though it is a serious issue,” Ramin said.
One of the main features in Sherman's Lagoon is a station where visitors can write a note to Eric Schwaab,the assistant administrator of the National Marine Fisheries Service,urging more effective enforcement against fishermen who abuse sharks. The bottom half of the note is blank for kids to draw pictures of their favorite sharks.
“If you take the sharks out of the environment,the whole homeostasis is disrupted,” Ramin said. “I'm not a scientist,but this really resonates with me and my kids. I get this now. You're not preaching to me – you're telling it in a fun,easy-to-understand way. That's what people are looking for.”
In 2003,Washington's aquarium merged with the National Aquarium in Baltimore and received financial help from NOAA to remodel and improve habitat conditions for the animals. It now holds more than 250 aquatic species from North America and its territories and functions under a new theme,”America's Aquatic Treasures.”
“This is a small,intimate venue where you see a focused set of animals,” Ramin said. “We think it's a good stop in Washington,when you're seeing the ruby slippers and the Spirit of St. Louis and all these other American treasures,these are America's Aquatic Treasures.”