Once a sidebar oddity in an earthworm museum, Rosie the Shark burst onto the viral urbex scene in early 2019. This is the story of a shark who’s had an incredibly interesting afterlife.
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Imagine you’re an urban explorer. If you’re listening to this podcast, then you probably have some small or large interest in urbex. The footage is shaky, poking through the remains of a couple of buildings where a small wildlife park once was. Not too much of note: lots of limp paper and half-broken arcade games.
You turn a corner: it’s a room filled with debris. A giant rectangular box sits in the middle, filled with an opaque green fluid.
Huh, that’s weird.
Hey, there are arcade games over there.
You check out the arcade games and turn your head back.
Now backlit with the light from the open doorway, you can see it. A shadowy figure suspended in the green fluid. A great white shark emerges from the gloom, right there next to you.
This is the story of Rosie the Shark.
Rosie the Shark: Origin Story
In the late 1990s, a large white shark was repeatedly sighted in the waters near Port Lincoln, in South Australia. The shark was seen so often that the locals reportedly gave it a nickname. And that nickname was Rosie.
In 1998, Rosie was hanging around the tuna farms of the Lukin family, for several days. One day, she reportedly chewed through the “predator net” (meant to keep the predators out) and made her way through into the main tuna net. Rosie the Shark reportedly ate quite a bit of tuna before getting tangled in the nets. She was shot and put to a merciful death.
Seal Rocks Sea Life Centre
Around this time, the owners of the nearby Seal Rocks Sea Life Centre were putting out feelers about purchasing a shark to display at their center, which opened in spring of 1998. This place was a small ecotourism attraction on Phillip Island, directed at the time by former insurance man Ken Armstrong. It had standard educational displays, a cafe, and a gift shop. The business had goals for a grand second stage of development, however, including an underwater tunnel that would allow visitors to walk to a large fur seal colony offshore and view the seals and their predator, the sharks.
The tunnel was opposed by the government at the time, with quite the political fight, and the plans for the grand tunnel fell through. The center’s scope was reduced to “a glorified kiosk where you can get a cup of tea and go to the toilet”.
(Ultimately, the Seal Rocks Sea Life Centre was a winner despite the original ruckus. The property was damaged by a tornado in 2002, and the government repaid the center over $42M in compensation and legal costs over the failed expansion. Today, they are “The Nobbies”: still offering guests a view on the fur seal ecotourist trade, but this time via digital remote cameras.)
Anyhow, Armstrong became the owner of this newly dead shark off the Lukin tuna boats, but in the end decided that a dead animal wouldn’t work with the center’s themes.
Rosie the Shark and Transport to the Giant Earthworm Museum
Ultimately, Rosie the shark was (either permanently or temporarily) transferred into the care of the Giant Earthworm Museum in Bass, Australia.
This necessitated a trip of over 900 miles for the two-ton shark: not an easy task.
Max Bryant, then responsible for procuring the shark in the first place, is quoted as saying “It was a hell of a task.” The shark was frozen at the Lukin tuna business near Port Lincoln, where it sat while a custom-built 20-foot steel frame was made to transport it.
The logistics didn’t stop there.
The truck driving Rosie was impounded by the South Australian Government as the truck crossed the Victorian border. At the time, a local woman had gone missing on the beach, and they reportedly were worried she might be inside the shark.
Rosie was then detoured to the South Australian Museum in Adelaide. She was defrosted and dissected, though only her stomach was removed.
The missing woman was not found inside the shark.
Rosie the Shark’s Vitrine
The decision was made not to refreeze Rosie the Shark. Instead, she was placed in a tank of formaldehyde and left to cure for several months.
Her tank is also known as a “vitrine”, meaning “glass display case”. Rosie’s vitrine was made out of glass and heavy duty steel, and it was filled with the preservation agent formaldehyde.
One of Rosie’s later owners, Chris Cohen, says that this preservation likely cost somewhere in the range of $250,000.
If this seems like a wild number, let’s stop and consider Damien Hirst.
You’ll often see Damien Hirst’s name dropped when reading about Rosie the Shark, and for good reason. Hirst is a British contemporary artist who dominated the British art scene in the 1990s, and is reportedly the UK’s richest living artist.
Hirst’s works are about the central theme of death. He’s most well-known for his 1991 piece, “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”. This contemporary art work is a tiger shark preserved in formaldehyde in a vitrine. (If you were not previously aware of the confluence between Hirst and Rosie the Shark, you may now be having a galaxy brain moment.)
The New York Times described the work thusly: “In keeping with the piece’s title, the shark is simultaneously life and death incarnate in a way you don’t quite grasp until you see it, suspended and silent, in its tank. It gives the innately demonic urge to live a demonic, deathlike form.”
In later years, Hirst continued to explore the theme of death, responding to “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living”, as well, with his pair of works, “Death Explained” and “Death Denied”. “Death Explained” is a tiger shark bisected longitudinally, and “Death Denied” is a similarly sized shark, whole, positioned next to the first work. Together, the pieces make up a pair of works Hirst named: ‘Coming to Terms With and Trying to Understand the Complexity of the Feelings and Ever-Changing Fears and Doubts that Every Human Being Experiences when Faced Every Moment with the Unfathomable Uncertainties of Death’.
Hirst’s work has sold for astronomical figures, making the exorbitant costs of the materials seem paltry. It is said that the original 1991 artwork cost somewhere around 50,000 pounds (roughly $65,000 USD). The replacement artwork in 2006 cost over 100,000 pounds for the formaldehyde process alone.
Replacement artwork? Yep, Hirst’s original shark-in-formaldehyde began to decay and grow opaque. Eerily familiar, perhaps.
(Damien Hirst’s “The Kingdom”, yet another shark-in-formaldehyde work, sold for 9.6 million pounds.
If you like Rosie the Shark, you should check out Damien Hirst.
Rosie the Shark and The Giant Gippsland Earthworm Museum
After a jaunt in the formaldehyde spa (not really a bacta tank), Rosie the Shark eventually made it to her new home: the Wildlife Wonderland, featuring the Giant Earthworm Museum. This small park/museum was created by John Matthews in the mid-1980s, and purchased by Robert Jones and Chris Cohen in the early 2000s.
Gippsland, east of Melbourne and in the area where the museum is located, is the native home to the “giant Gippsland earthworm”. These worms average 3 feet long, and can reach up to 10 feet long. The museum was created to promote the giant worm, and the main building itself was shaped like a worm. Visitors were invited to crawl through an oversized replica of a worm burrow and worm stomach. Other attractions, including a small movie theater, other live animals, and Rosie the Shark, were second fiddle to the giant worm.
A common thread among recollections of visitors from the early 2000s is that Rosie the Shark left little impression, while the giant worms, wombats, and koalas were much more memorable. Robert Jones, a co-owner of the park, described her as “ultimately underwhelming”, just another object after the initial curiosity. The park did well with visitors who were heading from Melbourne out to the popular Philip Island; tourists loved the wombats, the koalas, the dingoes, and the peacocks.
Disputes over Rosie the Shark’s Ownership
Apparently in a generous mood after Rosie had already been dropped off with the earthworms, Ken Armstrong, Rosie’s original owner, apparently promised Rosie to the Melbourne Museum. Remember, she was only “temporarily” housed at the Wildlife Wonderland. A small legal battle ensued, with the Melbourne Museum reportedly very eager to acquire her. The then-director of the museum’s collections described Rosie as “an extremely important specimen for the public”.
Robert Jones and Chris Cohen, the new owners of the Wildlife Wonderland, stood firm and ultimately won.
Their case, apparently all rested on timing, as no one disputed that Ken Armstrong had offered Rosie to the Melbourne Museum. However, the offer had been made after the park had already been sold to Jones and Cohen, including “the entirity of its contents, listed and otherwise”. Melbourne Museum parent company spokespeople, when asked recently about Rosie the Shark, said, a bit snootily, that they “investigated the acquisition of this specimen some time ago, but the decision was made not to acquire the object due to its poor condition”. Museum staff were reportedly frequent visitors to the shark exhibit, despite this.
Structurally Challenging Rosie the Shark
Rosie the Shark was not an easy occupant of the Wildlife Wonderland. She had an admissions price tag of $0, which was nice for visitors but not great for the pocketbook.
A concrete bunker pool was built underneath Rosie’s vitrine, with the purpose of capturing any formaldehyde if necessary. The fluid had to be continually topped off and filtered to avoid becoming cloudy. The daily monitoring was neither free nor cheap.
Rosie herself was a challenge, requiring the roof of the building to be removed so that she could be placed in the new vitrine by crane. John Matthews, original owner of the Wildlife Wonderland, estimated that it could’ve cost over 500,000 pounds to prepare and maintain the Rosie the Shark display.
The investment did pay off, at least initially. The park received over 350,000 visitors per year in the early 2000s, with many saying that they came to visit because of Rosie the Shark.
Closure of the Wildlife Wonderland
The Wildlife Wonderland park operated for several more years. Visitors of all ages still describe their many positive memories associated with this place. But under the surface, all was not rosy.
In 2006, Jones and Cohen had a falling out. Jones sold his part in the business and Cohen continued to run the park with two other investors.
The government upgraded and expanded the M420 highway nearby, but did not add a turn-off for the park. Traffic dwindled, as without a convenient exit, tourists would continue on to the popular tourist destination of Phillip Island.
Cohen described the park as “already in decline” when he sold it in 2011. The park reportedly quickly fell into neglect. The day-to-day managers and operators had a very casual relationship with both maintenance and paperwork.
The government noticed in 2012, citing the Wildlife Wonderland for violating the “Wildlife 1975” rule, displaying animals without a license.
The Wildlife Wonderland park was shut down. The 130 live animals were put into the control of the Department of Sustainability and the Environment.
The live animals departed. But Rosie the Shark remained.
An Abandoned Shark in an Abandoned Park
It is mind-blowing that no one took away Rosie, not even the Melbourne Museum which had been so interested before.
Perhaps it was the expense of relocating her, perhaps it was the challenge of finding a new site to host her, perhaps it was her condition? As epitomized by the David Hirst sharks, vitrines full of dead animal and formaldehyde can be an expensive operation.
The park began, or perhaps continued, to fall into disrepair. The sudden closure of the park left much of the material onsite to decay, including signs, pictures, displays, and games. And, of course, Rosie the Shark.
Soon after the closure, Tom Kapitany, among other interested parties, visited the former Wildlife Wonderland site with the option of redeveloping the park. They of course saw Rosie the Shark at the time of the visit. The park redevelopment was ultimately not viable for logistical reasons and didn’t proceed any further, and they were unable at the time to do anything to save Rosie.
Without any immediate plans for redevelopment, the former Wildlife Wonderland became a haven for squatters and vandals and casual urbexers.
Urbex and the 2018 Viral Rosie the Shark Video
After the closure of the park, in the early years, word of the shark in the vitrine was whispered, hush-hush, from person to person. People in the urbex community kept this sort of fact close to the chest, as it were, and the knowledge wasn’t passed along unless the recipient was deemed worthy.
In December of 2014, a post on Reddit attracted some attention, sharing an artistic image from Flickr user Murdoch80. It was black and white, with the shark in profile: head on the right, fins up and tail proud and tall on the left. Ghostly light seemed to filter through, and the reflections on the vitrine made the shark look unearthly, glowing, yet transparent. A broom or pole could be seen in the background behind the vitrine, and the juxtaposition of something so ordinary with something so unusual was very unsettling, to say the least.
Beyond this, internet rumor about Rosie was pretty quiet. The silence surrounding her in the digital space made any tidbits that much creepier, that much more eerie. Like Steven Spielberg has discussed in the context of Jaws, the *idea* of the shark is a lot scarier than actually seeing it, because you build it up in your own mind.
Lukie MC Puts Rosie on the Map
On November 3, 2018, an Australian urbex Youtuber, Lukie MC, posted a video with the title “Abandoned Australian Wildlife park. Decaying, left to rot.” Burying the lede, a bit.
The video shows the moments described at the top of the episode, with the discovery of Rosie the Shark in her tank, amidst other, fairly prosaic abandoned place videography.
Lukie MC’s video became a viral sensation, picking up YouTube hits, and then media outlet coverage. It is by far his most popular video, with over 13M views as of June 2019.
Copycat and amateur urbexers quickly caught the Rosie fever, inspired by Lukie MC’s video. New exploration videos went up that more or less followed the same pattern, with a bit of pretend interest in the wildlife park, a long focus on the shark, and commentary about the smell.
You see, vandals too caught the Rosie fever. Viewed chronologically, the urbex videos display the vandalism right there. The lid to Rosie’s vitrine was pried off, and items were thrown into the tank: a TV, CDs, a chair, bolt cutters. Two panels of the glass had something heavy thrown at them, shattering into a delicate spiderweb.
Toxic Fumes From Rosie the Shark
The formaldehyde began to evaporate.
Rosie’s doral fin became exposed.
And again, the smell.
When Damien Hirst was repairing his famed piece of art in 2006, the New York Times writer Carol Vogel described the process, saying that “so toxic was the air that the property could be reached only through security-coded iron gates, and no one, not even the artist, was allowed near the shark without protective gear”.
Yet here was a similar scenario, in an unlocked shed in an abandoned theme park in South Australia.
Like I said, everyone mentioned the smell. The smell of formaldehyde is potent, and obviously toxic. Yet here were all these inexperienced folks, moseying on down to see the shark. Some reports described police needing to visit the property four times per shift.
“Save Rosie the Shark”
The property owner quickly recognized the liability issues, and made plans to destroy Rosie the Shark at the local landfill.
Numerous campaigns spread across the internet, television, and radio, and these caught the attention of Sharon Williamson, part of Australian Animal Rescue and one of the people who’d investigated redevelopment of the park right after it closed. She got in touch with Thomas Kapitany.
Tom Kapitany is a collector, a museum owner. He opened “Crystal World and Prehistoric Journeys” in Devon Meadows, about an hour away from the Wildlife Wonderland, as a place to source interesting natural history specimens. They have the largest collection of fossils on display in the Southern Hemisphere there, and Tom also serves as one of the directors for the National Dinosaur Museum in Canberra.
At the last minute, the owner of the Wildlife Wonderland property got in contact with Tom Kapitany, and agreed to donate Rosie the Shark to Crystal World, including the removal and transportation costs.
The toxic formaldehyde was pumped out.
Rosie lay awkwardly on one side in the tank, surrounded by rubbish and debris. Her skin was a wrinkled, dark brown; her eyes wide and flat and very unsettling; and her mouth wide-open, gums visible, gaping with sharp, sharp teeth.
The roof was removed from the shed she’d called home for the last fifteen or so years, and a crane was called in. Rosie the Shark and her vandalized tank were removed from Wildlife Wonderland and driven on the back of a truck the hour drive up to Devon Meadows.
Rosie: Safe but Not Saved, Yet
By this point in early 2019, the social media coverage on Rosie the Shark was overwhelming. Several Facebook pages and groups have been made, each with differing degrees of officiality. The entire process of moving Rosie has been filmed and will be made into a documentary.
Described on the Gofundme page and shown in a personally narrated video on his own Rosie the Shark page, Tom Kapitany has reasonable goals for Rosie the Shark, with a restoration estimated at $100,000. The first steps were to remove the formaldehyde, then neutralize any remaining formaldehyde on Rosie or her vitrine. The tank needed repairs, not only to the shattered glass but to the rusting steel frame.
And after repairing any damage to Rosie herself, she will be re-immersed: not in formaldehyde this time, but in glycerine. Costs for the glycerine alone are estimated between $30,000 and $50,000. As her tank has been slowly refilled, the cost of each portion of glycerine is marked on the side of the tank in marker.
The glycerine added to date has rejuvenated the look of Rosie, plumping her out a bit, and she now sits on a gleaming layer of pink rose quartz.
Informational displays have been added around Rosie’s tank, sitting out to one side of a back lot. Her ultimate home will be inside a show building that has yet to be built. It is clear that Tom Kapitany is treating Rosie the Shark with the utmost respect. On the “RosieTheShark” page (Facebook.com/RosieTheShark) Tom and his team have started posting regular videos updating fans on the happenings with Rosie and describing the challenges of preserving her.
Rosie’s story after her death has been at turns sad and fascinating, and it is heartwarming to know that Rosie is now safe from vandalism and in the process of being saved (restored).
The license to display an animal is prominently posted next to Rosie’s tailfins.
Visitors can come to see Rosie for free at Crystal World, any day except Christmas. The original most eerie and unsettling of images, Rosie the Shark floating in a murky vitrine, has become prosaic, normal: just another object for the background of a tourist’s selfie.
Remember that what you’ve read is a podcast! A link is included at the top of the page. Listen to more episodes of The Abandoned Carousel on your favorite platform: Apple Podcasts | Google Podcasts | Spotify | RadioPublic | TuneIn | Overcast | Pocket Casts | Castro. Support the podcast on Patreon for extra content! Comment below to share your thoughts – as Lucy Maud Montgomery once said, nothing is ever really lost to us, as long as we remember it.
I’ve included a complete list of references used while researching this topic. It’s hidden under the link for brevity.
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19. SHARK TRUTH STRANGER THAN FICTION https://m.facebook.com/PISRadvertiser/posts/1997028507258139?__xts__%5B0%5D=68.ARDy3DoSuP3w1kiE6WikmHvQlLmRRBy4W825nWWGlXz5dURJUv_G4G6VJc4SZel7-N0N7v3ASDLfWX_YDm0dJwZBAELNxOO7kxEM_ho2w4QzhbnKUILgJsb4k1Z9vvL8-jruyRbt8sQH4CbU3qQKZ4_5ATdF6Ki_sQxpHZAulNiQJRWhAYQr8zL207phiGxk2LiapyT4D7_nxYnCcuXZoIchYo7HHJxAH-mnTIeHgFU3yMgje8w3Chu57ANXQ8PsbDTMAg12Lx4398UQjiQWNaDTjesr4edaOGUMtdQIFeRpVEZjySqZaBaUHqzmbGd9t_SYxmNfQHvkIoBLpN186neEDau5VE0bCOD7r86w771iGM8FBsJAX0Mq83XIl0aN-RYH3YVnE3o7FECzjLf7Vz5MfxjlewXhODHGLYAhUZ09FLlLuXz3YVeBdvIcv2-451yg1hGrWEttHLnyJtRQZt9w4CUUoZSZPYoHCiu_Akd5R1DzyuCYeEw&__tn__=H-R. Accessed May 8, 2019.
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25. The Team here at Save Rosie The Shark would like to introduce Lukie Mc, for those that don’t know Luke (Lukie Mc) https://m.facebook.com/rosietheshark/posts/250355899207032?__xts__%5B0%5D=68.ARDpVCV-JuRhi2qclQL0og2pOuCB6o6XpG0ZsVtU6Ox_qkr9qcPDg743B5y-GBK27t0R88FH4MFHlJnRRZ_dHjkl8kWTZKQmjtST8iz7OjRuuFm-MhkyEaDYFwtGZPgEl7SuAclsJqiI7ZLZYbOqoOabtnbFsIB48NWFDbgjj_xyX7YCTU9v1yWiol2uHx3lq1MrDd1FiV_LcxudZnx9MCIw_3poYHcUjqLiZbRX9EU1lGaU95WgJcPUsdT4g_C_chBLOkmRJ6m5GMhJNtjIIMVE_YySYIR8SrRRvdBWU17xujt1FNx4bFnamwG3SBeNURbJwM81TdxRsw7rst0A4Yo&__tn__=-R. Accessed May 8, 2019.
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