Honolulu exhibit aims to dispel shark myths

In the Bishop Museum's "Planet Shark: Predator or Prey" exhibit, a series of floor-to-ceiling video screens showcase different sharks.
In the Bishop Museum's "Planet Shark: Predator or Prey" exhibit, a series of floor-to-ceiling video screens showcase different sharks.
Shane Nelson
Shane Nelson

Oahu visitors fascinated by sharks should squeeze in a little time at the Bishop Museum in Honolulu this summer. The first-rate attraction just opened a temporary exhibition, "Planet Shark: Predator or Prey," that's generating a fair amount of buzz across the island.

Richard Pyle, an associate zoologist and ichthyologist at the museum, told me that over the years he's worked on a number of shark exhibitions and visited many others, but he's never seen a show dedicated to the creatures quite like this.

"Walking through this one is very, very different," he explained. "It's very fresh. It's very modern.  It's not the same tired, old things you always see in shark exhibits."

Australian firm Grande Exhibitions is the creative team behind "Planet Shark," and the Bishop Museum is the first U.S. stop for the show, which will run through Sept. 5 in Honolulu. Featuring full-scale models fashioned from real shark specimens, fossils dating back more than 370 million years as well as a collection of riveting stories about shark-human encounters, the show's major highlight is an immersive, multi-sensory cinematic experience featuring a collection of massive video screens.

"All the walls are full-sized, floor-to-ceiling videos of different sharks," Pyle explained. "And when I walked through, I was blown away, because it gives you the sense that you're actually in the water with the shark."

Pyle has spent a great deal of time diving with sharks during his career and understands why some folks might be frightened by them.

"They can seem menacing if you're not familiar with what they're like, and I think that's how they've got their reputation," he said. "I've been in situations where we've been surrounded by dozens, sometimes over 100 sharks, and we always consider that a blessing. We never ever feel worried or threatened."

Much of Pyle's confidence comes from experience, of course, but also the knowledge that humans aren't on the shark's menu, a common misconception discussed at length in the Bishop exhibit.

"We're not even close to what the shark's search image for prey looks like," Pyle said. "Most of the attacks that do happen are almost certainly mistaken identity."

Still, those attacks often generate a great deal of media coverage, which commonly tells only part of the shark's story and leaves people without all the facts. Pyle said "Planet Shark" tries to offer visitors a more complete understanding of sharks while also presenting a highly entertaining experience.

"It helps demystify sharks," he said. "It gives you a sense for what sharks are really like  not what Shark Week will try to portray them as on Discovery Channel."

"Obviously when there is a horrific attack, it makes a lot of news and that tends to be the side of sharks most people hear about," he added. "But this gives you the opportunity to see the other side of things, [and] there are some popular aspects of the exhibit that make it really entertaining, so it's not just science, science, science."


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