Spencer Steward saw Jaws at the drive-in with his dad — even though his mom forbade it — and got hooked. After studying marine biology and business, he looked to other nerdy pursuits like comic books and anime to figure out how to marry his passions.
"The easiest way to educate people is to entertain them first," said Steward, 43, of Brandon, CEO of Ocean Endeavors Inc. and a volunteer diver at the Florida Aquarium. "The kids these days seem to know all about comic cons, so I thought this would be fun way to present information."
This weekend's inaugural two-day Shark Con at the Tampa Convention Center is more than two years in the making. Modeled after fan conventions prevalent in the spring and summer, Shark Con will feature stars of the marine biology community, Sylvia Earle and Stuart Cove, panel discussions with conservation experts and interactive exhibits with marine animals in the expo hall. Fans will be able to touch bamboo sharks — which are small and found in shallow water — in a tank in the expo hall.
Earle, 74, who grew up in Dunedin, was the first woman to be named chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and an explorer in residence for National Geographic Society. She's led numerous deep sea explorations around the world studying ocean plant life, coral reefs and the effects of pollution on ocean habitats. She'll be speaking at Shark Con at 3 p.m. Saturday about her travels and conservation.
Cove made his name by wrangling sharks for several James Bond films as well as movies Open Water and Into the Blue. Cove operates a Bahamian diving adventure company and lives there with his family. He meet fans at 1 p.m. Sunday.
It's easy to see why organizers think they'll have thousands of visitors. Sharks have come to the fore of popular culture in the past 25 years with Discovery Channel's annual Shark Week in August leading the way. Campy horror films like Sharktopus and Sharknado have fueled the frenzy.
In exchange for cultural cache, Ocean Endeavors will give some of the registration money from Shark Con to charities involved in marine conservation. "We wanted to create something that would be a force for good," Steward said.
Title sponsor the Florida Aquarium will host one of the largest booths in the exhibition area and have a rotating cast of volunteers and animals.
"We have confirmed we're bringing penguins, pelicans and an alligator," said Katherine Claytor, the aquarium's public relations manager. "With the alligator you may be able to touch, and for the penguins and pelicans you'll be able to see them up close but contact won't be allowed."
Aquarium shark expert Eric Hovland will be on hand to drop knowledge about the fish of the hour and tell fans secrets about the misunderstood predator.
"I think a lot of the awareness about the truth about sharks has changed their image," Claytor said. "Sharks are curious more than anything. There are shark bites but there are rarely shark attacks. The intent is not to harm humans. Out in the oceans, we are in their environment and we need to respect that."
Other organizations, including Sea World, Lowry Park Zoo and Busch Gardens will have exhibits with animals and experts. Water sports companies and other ocean oriented vendors also have signed on to make Shark Con a one-stop shop for the aquatically inclined. For fans of the campier side of shark culture, there will be screenings of cheesy B-movies The Last Shark and Monster Shark. And it wouldn't be a con without costumes, with mermaids, pirates and even Aquaman expected to make appearances on the convention floor.
"There's really something for everyone here," Steward said. "We're trying to appeal to all kinds of shark fans."