Decades ago, off the rocky shores of the Farallon Islands, a whale-watching group gaped in astonishment as a pair of orcas breached the surface. Moments later, a great white shark popped up on the other side of the boat.
“The next minute, there was a big splash,” said Peter Winch, an education specialist for the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary to a rapt audience of Farallone View Elementary School students. “A few seconds after that, the orca came up with a great white shark in its mouth. And then it ripped the liver out.”
A chorus of “oohs” rippled across the classroom before the fifth-graders settled back into stunned silence. Shortly afterward, they passed around the gaping jaw bone from a full-sized great white shark, studded with rows of jagged teeth.
For nearly 30 years, Oceans Week has brought the mysteries of marine life to Farallone View Elementary School. In years past, the annual science unit has seen elementary schoolers explore the depths of the Pacific Rim, dive into the deep sea and even brush up on maritime history.
This year, Farallone View Elementary School students sunk their teeth into the ocean’s most renowned apex predator: sharks. From May 17 to May 23, the elementary schoolers explored different facets of the carnivorous fish.
“We really just wanted to learn about the different types of sharks, and their adaptations and their role in the ecosystem as apex predators,” said teacher Laurel Bigelow, who co-coordinated Oceans Week alongside parent-volunteer Priscilla Ebersole.
The week’s activities included a presentation from the Marine Science Institute, which brought a baby leopard shark for the students to touch, a glimpse into the intricacies of kelp forests, an assembly on proper stewardship for sharks and even a shark sense trail, which tasked students to envision the different senses they would need, as sharks, to stalk their prey.
Bigelow said that the school’s fourth- and fifth-graders also enacted a simulation of an ecosystem featuring different types of fish, with sharks at the top of the food chain. Students darted across campus as they sought to tag their classmates representing herring at the bottom of the chain, an assortment of carnivorous fish in the middle and, at the top, a school of ravenous mako sharks.
But while the intent of the simulation, explained Bigelow, was to illustrate the importance of sharks in regulating the balance of their ecosystem, the student’s eagerness to play slightly skewed the results.
“The kids were actually super insightful talking about how our model did not match real life,” said Bigelow. “It actually ended up being a really good discussion about doing science and trying to find a model that will help you understand nature. And the shortcomings of any model, and how you try and adjust for them.”
The students also dabbed globs of blue paint onto a mural to portray a shark feeding frenzy. The paintings featured orcas, jellyfish, great whites and whale sharks in a symphony of teal and aquamarine.
“I had a bunch of different ideas (for the mural), but I just kind of let it evolve,” said local artist Chris Bauman, who’s helmed the annual mural tradition for the past nine years. “I had the kindergarteners paint the water and add the swirls in the water. And then the first-graders added fish and some sharks. Now, with the older kids, you can start to see more of the sharks.”
Back in Winch’s presentation, part of the marine sanctuary’s Sharkmobile outreach program, students delved into the biology and natural history of sharks from around the world. They examined real biological specimens, like the bony proboscis of a large-tooth sawfish and a preserved leopard shark before relaying what they learned to their classmates.
“I hope they have an appreciation for how amazing these creatures are,” said Bigelow. “And how important they are in our oceans. For the most part, they’re not scary and they need our protection.”