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Inside the shark tank at Sea Life Aquarium

Kamahl Cogdon, September 6, 2020 7:00PM Kids News

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It’s feeding time for Mitchell the grey nurse shark at Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium. Picture: Jay Town media_cameraIt’s feeding time for Mitchell the grey nurse shark at Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium. Picture: Jay Town


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When you think of the animals that need our help on National Threatened Species Day, sharks are probably not the first that come to mind.

Surely these terrifying creatures lurking in our oceans are doing just fine on their own, right?

Wrong, says aquarist* James Gilbert from Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium.

Not only are they not the “mindless man-eaters” many people think, but some shark populations are under serious threat.

media_cameraAquarist James Gilbert says the sharks at the aquarium are friendly and curious.

Mr Gilbert said sharks got their undeserved fearsome reputation from movies and “fear of the unknown”.

“A lot of people don’t know much about them, they’re not really educated about sharks,” he said.

“When you say ‘shark’ a lot of people think of a giant great white shark. But there are so many species of sharks out there that aren’t anything like that big man-eater.”

There are about 400 species of sharks around the world. About 180 of these are found in Australian waters and about 70 of these are thought to be found only in Australian waters.

The Australian Government lists nine species as threatened under a law it passed in 1999 called the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act that protects these species from being killed, injured and sold.

media_cameraThe tawny nurse shark is one of the threatened species protected by the Federal Government’s Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

“There are a lot of reasons why sharks are threatened,” Mr Gilbert said.

“A big one is they are commercially* and recreationally* fished, and a lot of the time with recreational fishing they are accidentally caught.

“Another reason is unsustainable* fishing practices, which means we may not leave enough food for these sharks to eat in the wild.”

Mr Gilbert said beach safety nets and drum lines also played a role in declining shark numbers.

“These safety nets and drum lines are designed to keep dangerous sharks out of areas where humans are swimming but they can also trap sharks which pose no real threat to humans,” he said.

media_cameraThe speartooth shark is considered critically endangered.

Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium is home to three threatened shark species: a grey nurse shark called Mitchell, three speartooth sharks called Nicki, Roman and Star, and three tawny nurse sharks called Tubby, Marilyn and Fergie.

Grey nurse sharks are critically* endangered on the east coast of Australia, and vulnerable* on the west coast of Australia and throughout the rest of the world.

Speartooth sharks are also critically endangered, while tawny nurse sharks are vulnerable.

Mr Gilbert said another reason grey nurse shark numbers had declined was because they were heavily hunted in the 1950s and 1960s.

“They were thought to be these terrifying, deadly sharks because of the way they look with all these teeth hanging out,” he said.

“Because of that misinformation* they were really heavily hunted to the point we ended up with such a small amount.

“That’s why it’s really important to educate ourselves. Despite the way they look, a lot of these sharks are harmless and happy doing their own thing.

Stuff. Melbourne Aquarium. Grey Nurse Shark media_cameraMitchell the grey nurse shark looks a lot scarier than he is.

“Mitchell the grey nurse is a really good example of that. He does look a bit scary, but he’s definitely not. He’s a big teddy bear.”

Mr Gilbert, 26, has worked at Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium for almost three years.

His work days start with preparing food for the sharks and other fish.

He said sharks ate a varied diet that included salmon, pike, arrow squid and their favourite rainbow trout. Vitamins and other supplements were mixed in to help keep the sharks healthy.

After meal time, Mr Gilbert and his colleagues focus on tank maintenance and cleaning, which often means diving in with the sharks.

“These sharks here are just so friendly and really happy to be interacting with the divers. They’re really curious and they’re just the furthest thing you could possibly get from the dangerous and aggressive animals you see in movies like Jaws,” Mr Gilbert said.

He said the aquarium’s leopard sharks, Gemini and Leo, were especially fond of divers.

“They love coming up and snuggling in, and as crazy as it sounds, they love getting scratches from some of the divers,” he said.

Feeding time at the Melbourne Aquarium. Senior diver Kate McKay feeds Leo the leopard shark. media_cameraLeo the leopard shark enjoys a scratch at feeding time at Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium. Picture: Jay Town
World Oceans Day at the Melbourne Aquarium. Diver, Senior diver Kate McKay feeds Leo the Leopard shark. media_cameraFeeding time for Leo the leopard shark. Picture: Tony Gough


National Threatened Species Day aims to raise awareness of plants and animals at risk of extinction. It takes place on September 7 each year, the anniversary of the death in captivity of the last known Tasmanian tiger.

Mr Gilbert said kids could help protect sharks by:

  • Removing rubbish and discarded fishing gear on the beach or in the sea;
  • Not fishing in areas that are known to have sharks to avoid accidentally catching a shark;
  • Reporting any sightings of injured or entangled sharks in the wild to wildlife authorities;
  • And choosing to eat sustainable seafood, so we are not taking food from endangered shark populations. The Australian Marine Conservation Society publishes a sustainable seafood guide called Good Fish.

Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium’s Junior Shark Keeper program will be available free on its Facebook page from September 19 to October 4, 2020. Kids can enjoy shark videos, interviews with aquarists, downloadable worksheets and learn other fascinating facts about sharks.


  • aquarist: someone who cares for marine life in aquariums
  • commercially: done for business
  • recreationally: done for enjoyment
  • unsustainable: not able to be maintained at the current rate
  • critically: extremely
  • vulnerable: at higher risk than most
  • misinformation: false information


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  1. How many species of sharks are there around the world?
  2. How many species of sharks are thought only to be found in Australian waters?
  3. What does the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act protect nine shark species from?
  4. Which three threatened species can be found at Sea Life Melbourne Aquarium?
  5. What is the name of aquarist in this story?


1. A relatable shark tale
Choose one of the sharks that is named in this news story. Do your own research to find out a little more about its species. Then write a short imaginative story that stars the shark you chose. In your story, give the shark human-like traits to make them seem more relatable and less scary. See if you can include some sneaky factual information into the flow of your story too.

Time: allow 45 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English; Science

2. Extension
Set a timer for 5 minutes. How many adjectives can you jot down in that time that could be used to describe sharks?

Your score:

Less than 15 = Wipe Out
15 – 25 = Fin-tastic
25+ = Totally Jaws-ome

Time: allow 5 minutes to complete this activity
Curriculum Links: English

I Spy Nouns
Nouns are places, names (of people, animals and objects), and time (months or days of the week).

How many nouns can you find in the article?

Can you sort them into places, names and time?

Pick three nouns and add an adjective (describing word) to the nouns.

HAVE YOUR SAY: How would you feel swimming in a shark tank?
No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

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