SEFFNER — Growing up in Huntsville, Ala., Spencer Steward remembers enjoying trips to Florida with his father, who worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Steward took a liking to the ocean and everything in it and went on to earn a degree in marine biology and biological oceanography from the University of Miami.
Now a Seffner resident, Steward can wax poetic about the intelligence of lemon sharks, which he says can perform tricks like dogs. He also is fond of whale sharks, because of how gentle the world's largest fish are, and sevengill sharks, because of how little we know about the deep-water creatures.
For the past 2 ½ years he has been planning a way to share his enthusiasm for the ocean so that children, like his three sons, Charlie, 11, Nick, 10, and Tyler, 9, can learn about conservation, research and education in an entertaining manner. The result is the inaugural Shark Con, a family-friendly event that will take place May 3 and 4 at the Tampa Convention Center.
"I wanted to create something like that for people who like the ocean," said Steward, 43.
He even went so far as to become an ordained minister of the Universal Life Church so he would have the authority to marry people at the event with a Jaws-themed wedding. For $200, you and your betrothed can have mermaids and pirates witness your nuptials, just like Darth Vader does for Star Wars fans.
He understands that most children like the cute, fuzzy animals, or might even be more interested in the work his wife, Sara, spearheads aiding rhinos at Busch Gardens. Enter multiple interactive touch tanks, more than 100 vendors and appearances from mermaids, Aquaman and pirates.
"Shark awareness and conservation is a big part of our mission," said Katherine Claytor, public relations manager at the Florida Aquarium, which is helping to sponsor the event. "We are honored to have the opportunity to share the message."
More than a dozen speakers devoted to raising awareness about sharks and ocean conservation are lined up to lecture on their firsthand experiences, including Sylvia Earle, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and Time magazine Hero of the Planet.
Lost 1980s shark movies The Last Shark, a Jaws ripoff, and Monster Shark, shot off the Florida coast, will be screened, and Steward hopes upward of 10,000 will attend and help make the Tampa Bay area the mecca for shark aficionados by turning this into an annual gathering.
"I wanted to do some good and educate people," said Steward, who has swum with sharks all over the world and said he never felt endangered because "we are not on their menu."
One-day tickets cost $19.99 for adults and $4.99 for children and can be purchased at shark-con.com. Proceeds go toward the Florida Aquarium, where Steward volunteers, Mote Marine Laboratory for shark research and the Shark Angels, a group dedicated to saving sharks from overfishing and poaching.
Eric Vician can be reached at [email protected]