Between the Twitter explosion caused by the campy Syfy movie Sharknado and the ceaseless popularity of Discovery Channel's Shark Week, it's clear that sharks are having a moment.
The Discovery marathon, now in its 26th year, begins at 8 p.m. Sunday, and this worldwide phenomenon is showing — like the sharks — no sign of slowing down, with promises of more teeth than ever. They've added three more shark specials than last year, totaling 11, and a new Shark After Dark talk show airing nightly, a first for the event, featuring surprise guests, experts, survivors and more.
And did we mention Sharknado is coming to a big screen near you on Friday?
Tampa Bay's own aquariums with shark residents are not missing an opportunity to salute the (mostly misunderstood) great whites that haunt our nightmares. This week there are shark-themed events across the bay area. It's also a reminder of what our aquariums have to offer.
Clearwater Marine Aquarium
Come and get 'em, little sharkie, sharkie
I'm holding a piece of squid in my hand, with a shark swimming right at me, because this is the kind of bonus the Clearwater Marine Aquarium thinks visitors will pay extra for: hand-feeding a shark.
After stripping off my wedding ring, office lanyard and anything shiny, resident biologist Adrienne Cardwell informs me that the aquarium's resident nurse sharks, Thelma and Louise, have the suction power of 12 vacuum cleaners. Grandma's ring wouldn't stand a chance.
The Clearwater Marine Aquarium, made famous by a Hollywood movie about Winter the dolphin with the prosthetic tail, is still developing this new behind-the-scenes tour, but we got a sneak peek. Visitors start out in the kitchen, where the food is prepared, and then sit on a floating platform to feed the sharks, who are trained to come up for food with the display of target sticks.
Thelma goes for the white target, a large white ball on the end of a PVC pipe. Louise is trained to look for black. Waiting behind the target is a small fish or piece of squid.
Aquarium staffer Amanda Johnson says she's going to draw the shark to swim alongside our platform and as Thelma gets close, I am to drop the squid a few inches behind the target just as that giant sucking sound gets really close.
About this time, I remember that these suckers are powerful enough to pull a conch right out of its shell and crush a lobster like it's made of Ritz crackers.
Hoo boy. Brave I am not, but there are about four dozen tourists watching.
Thelma glides by our platform. I chicken out and drop the food way too soon, and her wide-set eyes miss the treat.
"Their vision isn't too good," Johnson says charitably.
Thelma comes back around. This time I have a small fish, a capelin, and drop it inches from her nose and hear the sucking sound. Thwap! She's got it! I still jumped a foot.
It's these feeding and training encounters (ranging from an $11 behind-the-scenes tour to a $325 "trainer for a day" program) that hold the biggest attraction for visitors at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium. Because frankly, the place isn't too swanky.
That's why voters will be asked on Nov. 5 to allow the aquarium to redevelop part of the downtown waterfront. The aquarium has an ambitious plan to build a $160 million, 200,000-square-foot attraction.
Meanwhile, the facility has drawn about 10 times the number of visitors it did before the release of the hit movie Dolphin Tale starring Harry Connick Jr., Morgan Freeman and Winter. (A sequel is set to start filming at the aquarium in October.) The swell in visitors has strained the ability to move crowds through the old water treatment plant that was converted to a rescue and rehab hospital for marine life in the 1970s.
At $19.95 admission for adults, the tight fit and lack of pretty tanks of jellyfish have caused some grumbling among visitors who were expecting more.
Spokesman Michael Atwell acknowledges that has been the biggest struggle in keeping visitors happy and part of what prompted this summer's deal for Hillsborough and Pinellas residents, who get a break of $9.95 admission.
Once there, you can see how the aquarium doubles as a working animal hospital that rescues and rehabilitates sea creatures, from turtles to manatees, otters and dolphins. There are trainer talks and demonstrations every half-hour. The resident dolphins Winter, Panama, Nicholas and Hope show off some cute tricks, and you can learn how loggerhead turtles, stingrays and river otters are cared for.
Your ticket includes admission to "Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure," an exhibit of movie sets and a surprisingly realistic walk through hurricane-force winds. You can drive yourself the short way to the Harborview Center in downtown Clearwater for that, or take a free Jolly Trolley ride.
If you go
Clearwater Marine Aquarium, 249 Windward Passage, and Winter's Dolphin Tale Adventure, 300 Cleveland St., Clearwater. (727) 441-1790; seewinter.com.
Admission: Summer special of $9.95 for Hillsborough and Pinellas residents; otherwise $19.95, $17.95 for seniors and $14.95 for kids 3 to 12. No price has been set yet for the shark-feeding tour.
Hours: Open daily 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Razzle and dazzle underwater
While the Florida Aquarium does its share of research and rescue, this one is by far the most entertaining aquarium in the bay area. It was designed that way, more on the model of a zoo than a research lab, and it is home to more than 20,000 aquatic plants and animals from Florida and all over the world.
They have clever displays here, like a tank with a "garden" of eels with thick wormy eels poking out of the sand like blades of grass. Or a peek at the lively scene found under any bridge piling in Florida with a massive 250-pound Goliath grouper hanging out. Or a tank of fish so tiny you need a microscope to see them — good thing one is attached to the tank. Stingray Beach, its newest addition, allows visitors to touch multiple species of stingrays and sharks and get close to local shore birds who hop around freely in the habitat and wander among the visitors.
There is also high technology in the aquarium's "smart Wi-Fi" that transmits information directly to a visitor's smart phone.
On one recent tour we happened to be there as scuba divers did the aquarium's "dive with the sharks" package, and visitors can watch divers came face-to-face with sand tiger sharks, who mostly seemed bored by the bubbling guests.
While the displays can easily occupy half a day, don't forget to pack a swim suit for the kids to play in the expansive two-acre splash play area, conveniently located by a tiki bar where the adults can have a cold drink while they watch the kids.
If you go
Florida Aquarium, 701 Channelside Drive. Tampa. (813) 273-4000; flaquarium.org.
Shark Week events: There will be a shark-themed scavenger hunt throughout the aquarium and interactive shark games and learning activities Saturday and Sunday as well as shark-themed dive shows; you can also touch a shark at the aquarium's new Stingray Beach. They will also have discounts on their Shark Feeding Tours, Dive with the Sharks programs (15 percent off for Shark Week) and Adopt-a-Shark plush toys. See flaquarium.org for details.
Admission: $21.95 adults, $18.95 seniors, $16.95 ages 11 and under. Ages 2 and under free. You can save $2 if you purchase tickets online.
Summer special: Admission is $15 after 4 p.m. Thursday evenings through Aug. 8 and the aquarium stays open until 8 p.m.
Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.
See shark scientists at work
Fans of Shark Week should be familiar with Sarasota's Mote Marine Laboratory because the research center and aquarium is home to some of the world's leading shark and dolphin researchers who have appeared on many an episode, usually to caution that our fears of shark attacks are overblown.
The lab was created and supported by the Vanderbilt family in 1955, bringing pioneering scientist Dr. Eugenie Clark — nicknamed "The Shark Lady." Now 91, Clark is renowned for her research on poisonous fish of the tropical seas and on the behavior of sharks and is a pioneer in the field of scuba diving for research.
The lab has grown into seven research centers as well as a dazzling public aquarium. There are extensive and beautiful exhibits of jellyfish, sea horses, Florida's ecosystem displays and, of course, sharks. Kids can buy a sand bucket for $5.99 to pan for shark teeth and fossils; most kids walked away with overflowing handfuls on our tour.
If you go
Mote Marine Laboratory, 1600 Ken Thompson Parkway, Sarasota. (941) 388-4441; mote.org.
Shark Week events: Narrated shark feedings are at 11 a.m. every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Included with admission.
Admission: $19, $18 seniors, $14 kids 4 to 12.
Hours: Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. seven days a week, including all holidays.
Konger Tarpon Springs Aquarium
See some good exhibits for a bargain price in downtown Tarpon Springs, including a 120,000-gallon shark tank complete with a coral reef. You can see divers feed the sharks several times a day, as well as alligators, eels, lobsters, octopus, live coral, anemones and stingrays. They have an entire room devoted to a touch tank, where you can pet and feed stingrays and small sharks. It's at 850 Dodecanese Blvd., off U.S. 19 in Tarpon Springs. (727) 938-5378; tarponspringsaquarium.com.
Admission: $7.75 adults, $5.75 for kids 3 to 11.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday.
Secrets of the Sea Marine Exploration Center and Aquarium
Now that the 2,000-square-foot St. Petersburg Pier Aquarium has closed, it is expanding into a larger space of 13,500 square feet at John's Pass Village, the tourist district in Madeira Beach. Renamed the Secrets of the Sea, organizers intend to open the aquarium in November with lots of hands-on learning stations. It has partnered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to create the "Science on a Sphere," a dramatic globe that will showcase the oceans, weather and real-time environmental data.