The shark models hanging from the ceiling of the Aquarium’s Pacific Canada Pavilion for the feature exhibit The Secret World of Shark and Rays have stories to tell – but this is not one of their stories. It’s actually the story of Robert Gander, who played a major role in breathing new life into them.
Robert grew up working in his family’s taxidermy business, and says he never thought of doing anything else. He and his brother Rick were tasked with repairing three of the Aquarium’s shark models: a basking shark (Cetorhinus maximus), a bluntnose sixgill shark (Hexanchus griseus) and a thresher shark (Alopias vulpinus).
“My father mounted the thresher shark in 1972, and I remember going to the Aquarium on field trips with my elementary school and telling everyone that my dad had done that shark. And now 41 years later, I work on the same shark and it again hangs in the Aquarium for a new generation of kids to enjoy.”
Repairing these models for display required a number of steps: removing a pectoral fin to get the basking shark out of its former home, repairing cracks and repainting by hand and airbrush.
“Taxidermy is a very unusual business and requires many skills to produce an item that looks as it did in nature. The one thing it has taught me is to never relax and be content with the job you have done – always strive to improve and learn something new every day.”
These model sharks were initially modeled in the early ‘60s and ‘70s after B.C. sharks off the coast of Vancouver Island. Murray Newman, the Aquarium’s first executive director, was inspired by a visit to the British Museum of Natural History to display life-sized models of unfamiliar fishes here. This was a time when photographs and video of unfamiliar animals were not as readily available, and it was way before handheld devices could quickly bring up amazing images. These models helped people realize then that these odd-looking fishes existed. Today, these life-sized models help us understand how big some of these sharks actually get.
Maybe someday, Robert’s grandson will look up at these same models with wonder and pride.