Odd couple peel away prejudices
DEEP in the bowels of the Australian Museum, an odd pairing of colleagues is embarking on a national first aimed at shifting Australians’ perception of our most feared predator — the shark.
Often demonised as a deadly menace lurking off our coastline, the museum wanted to find a way of educating people on just how fragile these creatures are.
Usually displayed in tanks and fully intact, the plan was to take it a step further and peel away the layers of the shark, displaying just the skull, backbone and fins — carefully cleaned and perfectly reconstructed.
But when taxidermist Katrina McCormick, renowned for her work on mammals and birds, was assigned the task, she wasn’t sure where to start.
Sharks have no bones — their skeleton made completely of cartilage — so the veteran mammologist was starting from scratch.
That’s where an unlikely collaborator came into the picture with museum staff discovering Qantas longhaul flight attendant Simon De Marchi moonlights as one of Australia’s only restorers of shark jaws and teeth.
“When I saw his website and what he’d done, I knew I’d found a creepy new friend,” Ms McCormick laughed. Mr De Marchi, who’s been doing skull restoration and repairs for decades, was contracted by the museum to assist McCormick.
Working in a mortuarylike lab underneath the museum in William St — classical music blaring, scalpels laid out neatly — the pair work “dearticulating” a 2.5m mako shark given to them after being caught in the shark nets off Maroubra last year.
A scan before the scalpels came out revealed the mako had swallowed a commercial longline fishing hook.
“We’ve removed all the muscle mass, the skin and the meat so it’s now down to literally bare bones — or in this case cartilage — and now we’re working on the skull,” Mr De Marchi said.
“With the fins we’re sort of doing it in a way where we’re peeling back a section of the skin to show exactly what it looks like underneath.”
Makos, the great white’s athletic cousin, can reach almost four metres long, swim close to 100km/h and leap nine metres out of the water.
Working on the mako has been a steep learning curve for Ms McCormick, who is amazed by the shark’s “incredibly evolved” anatomy.
“We were just peeling back the layers thinking this is perfection. They’ve designed themselves to perfection, then they’ve stopped there and that was something like 400 million years ago. A job well done,” she said.
The museum is hoping the shark will be part of a larger exhibition that will launch within the next two years in Sydney before travelling around the world’s museums.
Katrina McCormick works on removing the last of the muscle from the spine of a mako shark at the Australian Museum. Picture: Toby Zerna
Scan of the mako, with hook and Simon De Marchi.
A mako. Picture: Al McGlashan