CHATHAM – In 2010, marine biologist Dr. Greg Skomal tagged an 18-foot white shark off the coast of the Cape. She was given the name Curly and is, to date, the largest great white shark ever tagged along these shores. While the real Curly is likely still swimming somewhere in the Atlantic, shark enthusiasts can get a sense of her impressive size by visiting the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy’s Shark Center in Chatham and looking up.
Thanks to grants and donations, a detailed, life-size replica of Curly was recently installed in the museum, offering visitors the opportunity to check out what makes her and other white sharks unique.
Marianne Long said Curly’s story is one that folks at the AWSC won’t soon forget.
“In 2010 Dr. Greg Skomal was out with the Mass Division of Marine Fisheries when they got a report of a large white shark feeding on a humpback whale carcass,” Long said.
It was the only time that Skomal got in a shark cage to get underwater footage and secure a tag on a shark. Curly is so far the largest white shark that’s been tagged as part of the AWSC research program, and the experience allowed Skomal and his team to gather invaluable footage of the massive shark. It allowed them to see, in detail, what made Curly, well, who she was, down to her unique markings and overall shape. It also allowed the folks at Gray Taxidermy in Pompano Beach, Fla., to fully replicate the shark in a life-size model that now hangs from the ceiling of the AWCS Shark Center.
The model itself is about 18 feet long and weighs about 400 pounds, significantly less than an actual 18-foot white shark, which would weigh in around 4,000 pounds. Helping to secure the huge and heavy model safely was AP Kimball Construction, a local construction firm tasked with the singular job.
“We’re used to doing unusual things, but it’s definitely up there,” said Peter Kimball, the company's president. “It’s not something we would do very often for sure.”
Kimball got word of the project courtesy of Long’s fiancée, who helped get everything set up.
“We actually reached out to Gray’s taxidermy and started the process in mid-February,” said Long. “We got everything confirmed the second week of March, then COVID-19 happened. We were already under a super tight timeline, then everything got shut down. When Florida reopened, they turned this around really quickly and put it all together in about a month.”
Long said the shark arrived by freight truck, with a box built around it like a cage wrapped in cardboard. When AWSC folks cut a hole in the cardboard and saw the jaw of the shark, it was a thrilling moment.
“They were in the best spirits that day,” Long said.
Kimball and his crew then attached the shark model to the ceiling, which had been previously shored up to hold the weight. Kimball said it was quite a sight.
“I actually spend a lot of time surfing,” he said. “Normally I don’t like to be that up close and personal with a shark. Seeing one that size was definitely a little intimidating. But we had a good time doing it.”
Curly now hangs at an angle, ready to greet visitors entering from the front foyer of the building. Better still is that she’s a complete reproduction of her original, right down to her markings.
“You can see the pattern on the gill slits and the markings on the pelvic fins that make this shark unique,” said Long. “Their sides are where the gill slits are and that can be like a fingerprint on a shark.”
Long said that each shark has different color patterns on the gill slits. On Curly, after the first gill slit in a row of five, there are three white marks. After the second there are four, then two.
“When you compare that to another white shark that’s been identified, it’s not the same pattern as they go back,” Long explained. “They also look back on the pelvic fins to where the color gradient changes from gray to white. The pattern and how it changes can almost look like freckles.”
Further enhancing the appearance is anatomically correct teeth in rows, just as Curly has in the wild. From her new station at the museum, Curly appears to be swimming toward prey, her mouth open, dorsal fin high, tail strong.
Long is excited for the museum’s reopening, hopefully this week after ensuring that their COVID-19 protocols are met. For now, under the state’s Phase 3 guidelines, the museum will be allowed to open, but to minimize crowding will only accept visitors by appointment, with masks required. Long hopes that Curly will prove a popular display.
“It’s just an incredible educational tool that we can use,” she said. “We are often asked what was the largest shark seen or tagged and we get to give the visual now. It’s really exciting.”
What: Curly the White Shark model. Where: The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy Shark Center, 235 Orleans Rd., Chatham. If You Go: Call first, 508-348-5901 as visiting is by appointment only through Phase 3 of reopening.