With the word shark comes the inevitable association with Steven Spielberg’s “Jaws.”

Since that movie hit screens, generations of people have looked at the ocean in a different way, and John Williams’ brilliant score (duunn dunn … duunn dunn … dun dun dundundundun) will forever be associated with impeding danger. Along with it, sharks were cast as ruthless, “perfect killing machines” hungering for human blood.

“Planet Shark: Predator or Prey,” which opened Saturday at the Portland Science Center, takes another look at the often misunderstood creatures of the depths. Older than the dinosaurs, sharks are an integral part of the ocean’s ecosystem, and in recent years have come under serious threat from over-fishing.

“It’s one of those sea creatures that terrify and fascinate us all at once,” said James Sulikowski, a professor of marine science at the University of New England. Known throughout Maine as “Dr. Shark,” he’s made the oceanic predator the focus of his work for the last 25 years.

The first object that greets you when you enter the exhibit is the massive jaws of a Megalodon, an extinct species that once grew to be 60 feet in length.

Other parts of the exhibit have similarly big-jawed sharks, except these swim the oceans today. The Great White, which was catapulted into everyone’s imagination thanks to “Jaws,” is of course a prominent feature. A full-size replica of the largest Great White ever caught demonstrates just how big they get.

Perhaps the most impressive part of the exhibit is a massive, 40-foot screen offering full-size projections of various kinds of shark. The largest species, the Whale shark, stretches the entire length of the screen, and from floor to ceiling too.

There’s a lot more in the oceans, however, than big sharks.

“We have nine species of shark here in Maine,” said Sulikowski.

Those include the Spiny Dogfish (if you’ve ever been deep sea fishing you’ve probably been annoyed by catching one), Blue sharks, Basking sharks, and so on.

Sharks, like most predatory species, are incredibly diverse and occupy a wide range of sizes and behaviors. Some – like the Great White – are powerful and intelligent hunters, while others – like Whale sharks – are gentle giants that feed on microscopic creatures.

The exhibit, said Sulikowski, helps showcase the important role sharks play in the ocean.

“Without sharks, our oceans would be a mess,” he said. The idea of ruthless, mindless killers that prey on unsuspecting swimmers is just plain not true. “This exhibit is pretty good at dispensing all the myths.”

Afraid of going into the water out of fear of sharks? You might want to be more afraid of what you have in your pockets. In 2015, more people were killed trying to take selfies than by sharks.

In fact, some species of shark are elusive in the extreme. For example, you’re 10 times more likely to die from a hole collapse at the beach than even see a White Tip shark, let alone be attacked by one.

“Planet Shark” doesn’t shy away from the myths, however, many of them are on display. Archive footage of programs comparing sharks to “hungry gangsters” and “Nazis of the sea” showcase sharks being dragged from the water for sport.

Peter Benchley, the author of “Jaws,” has since said he’d never be able to write the book after what he’s learned about sharks.

Planet Shark doesn’t shy away from the complicated history humans have with sharks, including the fear that many feel of the animals. Staff photo by Chris Chase

The exhibit doesn’t shy away from the current adversity facing sharks either. The shark-fin trade, which can often feature brutal hunting methods that discard wounded but still alive sharks, is on display, too. Over 100 million sharks are killed each year to make bland soup that supposedly has “medicinal” value, but likely is harmful due to the high levels of heavy metals present in sharks.

Shark fin products like these result in the brutal deaths of millions of sharks each year. Staff photo by Chris Chase

Sulikowski said he hopes the exhibit inspires kids to learn more about sharks, and to understand that they’re not awful monsters, but intelligent and necessary sea creatures. He said he has been fascinated by the creatures ever since he was a little kid.

“I saw a little dead shark at the beach, when I was maybe five years old, and that was it,” he said. “It’s not really a job, it’s kind of a passion.”

“Planet Shark: Predator or Prey” will run at the Portland Science Center for a limited time only. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, and 10 a.m. Friday and Saturday, closed Monday and Tuesday.

Tickets are $18.50 for adults, $16.50 for seniors 65-plus, members of the military, and college students, and $14.50 for children aged 3 to 12. Children under 3 are free.
For more information, visit portlandsciencecenter.com

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