Community Environment News
Two in Tow & On the Go: Megalodon at Point Defiance, a PNW tradition
Last year, Clara, Wyatt, and I stumbled upon a much-loved tradition that locals have been carrying out for decades.
And now that we know, it’s one we’re adopting forever.
There we were, at Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, just walking down the path (with Wyatt running 10 feet ahead) toward the Asian Forest Sanctuary, ready to check out some big ‘ol tigers — when wham! Giant shark teeth appeared in our periphery.
Alarmingly lifelike yet surprisingly fun, 138 chunky chompers lined an open-mouthed jaw sculpture towering 6 feet high and 9 feet wide, bolted to an outdoor display outside the zoo’s now-closed South Pacific Aquarium building.
Upon seeing it, my first thought was:
“Hey, you know these two precious children of mine? These physical manifestations of my unwavering love and protective maternal instinct? How about I place them directly between the mighty jaws of this mega monster and snap a pic for the grandparents!!”
Naturally, the kids loved the idea.
Turns out, they’re not the only ones. Generations of camera-ready families far and wide return again and again to the lifesize fossil replica of what scientists believe was the largest shark to have ever lived, a prehistoric super-predator called the Megladon. The animal dates back millions of years and is described as being as big as a semi-truck, a school bus, and even a small airplane.
A Tale of Two Shark Mouths
Later, I learned this jaw-esome sculpture in fancy foam and epoxy is the upgraded successor to the zoo’s much older photo-op of an unspecified shark breed that Millenials and Gen Z babies aged up with since the 1990s. That first version, a simpler and more generic gaping mouth with rows of pointy and menacing teeth, was sculpted or carved on what appears to be a blue and white board with space to pose behind it. Sadly, that one existed before my time here in Washington so I didn’t get to see it for myself. After the cutout display got so old it was falling apart, zoo officials said they disposed of it.
But readers seem to remember it with the fierce power of 90s pop-culture nostalgia, as evidenced by the growing collection of reader-submitted shark mouth pics from both displays, dating from 1999 to the present, compiled in the gallery below.
Although Point Defiance’s original shark mouth wasn’t as realistic or fancy as today’s display, readers tell me it was still widely adored. Whole families, cute couples, and excited parents with bite-sized infants gathered “inside” the mouth. They smiled wide for the shot, often with goofy expressions or exaggerated gasps for actual cameras with film. Zoo officials say this went on for more than 30 years!
Reader Lynn Peer Sebring was among them. She said her children loved playing pretend with the zoo’s original display.
“It was a tradition to take a pic every time we went,” Sebring told me in a Facebook comment thread about the zoo. “Now I can look back and watch my kids growing up in the shark’s mouth.”
Reader Nancie Russ had a similar sentiment, commenting that her grandchildren posed in a similar fashion.
“We … watched them grow in relation to the mouth size,” she wrote in the same thread. “It is fun to look back on.”
That original shark mouth, zoo officials tell me, lived at the zoo’s iconic circle-shaped North Pacific Aquarium outside the Marine Discovery Center (both of which are now closed).
But new days were ahead. Shortly after the original cutout retired, 2014 rolled around and Point Defiance’s “Sharkmania!” prehistoric shark special exhibit opened. With it, debuted the Megalodon jaw replica that newer generations of zoo-goers know and love today.
A Bigger Trend
Type “Megalodon jaw” into any internet browser and you’ll find children across the country (and probably worldwide) posing between these giant sets of teeth. This prehistoric photo-op trend transcends Point Defiance and shows up at aquariums, children’s museums, and similar tourist destinations in places such as Texas, North Carolina, and Florida. There’s even a 3D-printed Megalodon jaw right here in Gig Harbor at Harbor Wild Watch’s new Sharks of Salish Sea exhibit.
The majority of these sculptures are fossil replicas, including the jaw at Point Defiance, because of limitations on the way some jaws and teeth preserve in nature (or, don’t), over millions of years. Real Megalodon teeth also appear to sell for quite a bit online.
Several companies specialize in making these replicas. The zoo’s megamouth was crafted by exhibit fabricator Dennis J. Wilson, owner of Pangaea Designs in Denver, Colo. Wilson posted about the whole process online, which I definitely recommend checking out.
In the post, he says the zoo “wanted this to be a touchable, interactive exhibit,” so Wilson aimed to do just that. He started out with a 2-foot jaw from a Great White Shark, which was then 3D scanned and scaled up to size to match the approximately 9-foot-wide bite projections of a real Megalodon jaw. The sculpture was then carved in foam, texturized, and painted to look like a real fossil. But not before its rows of gigantic triangle-shaped teeth were installed. The teeth, also fakes, are mini sculptures cast by a whole different company located in Chatsworth, Calif. called Bone Clones. It specializes in osteological reproductions. Cool, huh??
A New Home
After Wilson’s replica arrived almost 10 years ago, it was displayed at the zoo’s longtime North Pacific Aquarium before the aging building closed in 2018. Today, the zoo’s fishy friends, invertebrates, and other underwater creatures reside at the zoo’s new and uber-modern Pacific Seas Aquarium which opened near the center of the zoo. After 2018, the Megalodon mouth went MIA before popping up again in the summer of 2022. This time, it was stationed under the outdoor covered entrance of a third zoo aquarium building, the now-shuttered South Pacific Aquarium that closed in 2021 and is set to reopen in spring 2024. That’s where the Megalodon mouth remains today and is the exact location we found it in! I marked it with an ‘X’ on the map. Hope to see ya there!
SNAP A PIC WITH THE MEGALODON JAW!
Where: Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, 5400 N Pearl St., Tacoma
Cost: Free with zoo admission (ticket pricing here)
Location on the map: Outside, under the covered entrance to the South Pacific Aquarium building, near the entrance to the Asian Forest Sanctuary
More info: (253) 404-3800; [email protected]; zoo website
Reader Submitted Gallery
Tonya Strickland is a Gig Harbor mom-of-two, longtime journalist, and Instagram influencer in the family and travel niche. Her blog, Two in Tow & On the Go, was recently named among the 10 Seattle-Area Instagram Accounts to Follow by ParentMap magazine. Tonya and her husband Bowen recently moved to Gig Harbor from California with their two kids, Clara (9) and Wyatt (7). When they’re not adventuring, Tonya stays busy navigating how umbrellas are unacceptable life choices now, giant house spiders exist but only in September, and that salted parking lots are absolutely not weird at all. Find her on Instagram and Facebook for all the kid-friendly places in and around Gig Harbor.