Eleanor and Emma Buckley, of the North End, love looking at gentle sea turtles, but today they are transfixed as they stand nearly nose to nose with a shark. Suddenly the close-up image changes into a new one, and Eleanor, 20 months, yelps with surprise as Emma, 4, cries, “Come back!”
Eleanor and Emma, along with their mother, Saira, got a preview last week of the New England Aquarium’s new “Science of Sharks” exhibit, which will officially open April 14. And by the family’s reaction, it appears aquarium officials got the response they were aiming for.
“The main point of this space is to get people really involved and invested in how amazing and important sharks are, to help them then want to take steps in their lives and communities to help protect these vital animals in the ocean,” said Sam Herman, a senior educator at the aquarium.
Already open to New England Aquarium members like the Buckleys, the exhibit is loosely split into four sections. One showcases what Billy Spitzer, vice president of programs, exhibits, and planning, called “the lifecycle cluster.” Glass cases feature epaulette shark and marbled coral catshark eggs, backlit so visitors can see the embryos swimming inside. Juvenile versions, just inches long, occupy the next tank, with the one- or two-foot adults — epaulette sharks, Halmahera walking sharks, and marbled coral catsharks — right after.
A second section features a wraparound screen displaying underwater video and photographs of and by Massachusetts native Brian Skerry, a National Geographic photographer and the aquarium’s explorer in residence. Judging by the young visitors who pressed their noses up against the screen, Skerry’s footage amps up the exhibit’s awe factor in simulating what it’s like to swim with sharks.
“It’s really cool to see these fairly big-scale images of these incredibly magnificent, beautiful animals swimming, and then see the divers and the photographers with them,” Spitzer said. “It sort of gets across the idea that, ‘Yeah, you have to respect these animals.’ ”
Another area focuses on a life-size model of a tiger shark, flanked by information about its organs and genetic adaptations. A portion of the exhibit, set off in the corner and nicknamed the “diversity tank,” spotlights the adaptations of unusually shaped California swell sharks, chain catsharks, and Japanese swell sharks.
Research on threats to sharks and how the animals adapt to survive, conducted by the aquarium’s Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, is incorporated throughout, primarily on wall-mounted displays and in an interactive video experience. The center, which will be a year old in June, focuses on finding ways to protect vulnerable aquatic species and promoting conservation efforts.
One video features senior scientist Nick Whitney’s accelerometer tags, which act as a “Fitbit for sharks.” The tags use the same chip as the activity tracker, calculating a shark’s tail beats as well as how much energy they’re expending. From this information, scientists can infer two things: where the sharks are going, and how they’re faring physically.
“It also helps us accomplish something that’s been researched and pursued here in New England for a long time, which is to find out what happens to sharks after they’re caught by fishermen and released,” Whitney said. “Do they survive? Do they die?”
Aquarium educators wander the space along with the visitors to answer any questions they may have or to provide additional insight into what has captured their attention.
“We focus a lot on really helping people see themselves as citizens who have a stake in what happens in our environment, not simply as consumers who are making purchasing decisions,” Spitzer said. “That whole concept of civic engagement is really important to us, and people need to understand that we all have a voice.”
Visitors such as Rebecca Sama, of Cambridge, agree. Sama has worked with the aquarium on sustainability efforts in the past. She brought her two young daughters to the exhibit because her 3-year-old, Tessa, is fascinated by sharks and makes a point to see one each time they visit.
“It’s nice to know that people are looking forward and looking at educating people and getting them involved and excited about saving these animals,” Sama said. “Especially right now, I feel like we have to protect them because our government is not fighting as much to protect them anymore.”
“Science of Sharks” will stick around for a few years, and Spitzer said the plan is to rotate new shark species and videos in every so often.
“We really see this as a longer-term initiative, and it really is building on and trying to showcase some of the research and conservation work that we do,” Spitzer said. “We really want people to understand more about it and appreciate how interesting and complex and, also, vulnerable these animals are.”
It is a lesson Saira Buckley, who visits the aquarium weekly with her daughters, embraces for her family.
“We talk about recycling, conserving energy and water,” Buckley said. “I think when you come and see the fish and how they live, it makes it feel like real life.”