- The Washington Times - Monday, November 4, 2002

VIRGINIA BEACH How do you give a shark a physical?
Or how do you get the 200-plus-pound, jagged-toothed creature to give blood, submit to being weighed and have its uterus examined?
The staff and volunteers at the Virginia Marine Science Museum have learned that it must be done carefully.
The exhaustive, four-hour procedure ends with the staff getting only a few cuts and scrapes, one vicious face slap by a shark tail and a rescue operation that had museum guests gasping in amazement.
Since 1996, when a sand tiger and other sharks were brought to the museum's 300,000-gallon Norfolk Canyon tank, several never had received complete physical checkups. After a couple of the females engaged in mating behavior over the spring and summer, museum officials decided to give them sonograms to determine whether they were pregnant.
Swimming with scuba gear and protective screens, Beth Firchau, Maylon White and Liz Kopecky guided the sharks into a mesh enclosure.
Once inside the enclosure, the crew directed each shark into a separate "hospital tank" about the size of a hot tub. Everything went smoothly up to this point. But when the animals were captured in a large mesh sling, some of them gave the staff a lesson in explosive energy.
Mr. White, the museum's exhibits curator, received the powerful slap in the face but shrugged it off as just another ache he would remember the next morning.
One of the secrets to examining big predators is to take the edge off their behavior. While the sharks were wrapped safely in the mesh sling, oxygen was bubbled over their gills to sedate them.
Staff veterinarians then took blood samples and waved a sonogram wand over the females' bellies to see whether eggs were present. Staff and volunteers measured the sharks, muscled them out of the tank and onto a scale, then quickly returned them to the tank and released them.
The sand tigers were 4 to 5 feet long when brought to the museum six years ago.
Now the largest of them, named Double Notch because of its mangled dorsal fin, measures 8 feet 7 inches long.
The large female shark turned out to be the biggest problem. She "burped" while on the surface, expelling the air swallowed to keep her buoyant. When released, she sank to the bottom and lay there.
Ms. Kopecky jumped in after her.
As schoolchildren and their teachers watched, the aquarist swam down and grasped the 245-pound shark by her belly and lifted her, swimming in a slow circle as the pair rose to the top of the tank.
The staff got the animal back in the hospital area, then Ms. Firchau opened the shark's mouth and gradually guided a tube down her throat and into her stomach.
"I am so sorry," said Ms. Firchau, who has cared for the sharks since their arrival at the museum.
"I cannot tell you how sorry I am," she said. "You're my favorite sweetie."
Then, taking a deep breath, Ms. Firchau blew air into the animal's stomach.
Though the shark had been sluggish a few minutes earlier, she exploded with energy. Ms. Firchau scurried out of the holding tank. Reintroduced to the main tank, the shark swam about vigorously, apparently no worse for wear.
The veterinarians found no eggs in two of the females.
The third, probably the most vigorous of all those examined, went wild just before the sonogram could be given.
"She's gonna be a fighter, guys, so watch it," Ms. Firchau said as the animal's head jerked.
With that, the shark crew released the feisty animal and left the matter of further tests to another day.


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