Arielle Richards for VICE AU
I recently came across an old VICE story that stirred something deep and primal in my soul.The title, “This Abandoned Wildlife Park Features A Decaying Shark”, kinda said it all, except for the fact that the real life R.L. Stein fever dream – a decomposing great white floating bereft in a neon fugue of formaldehyde – was in my very own backyard, an hour and a half from Melbourne’s CBD.
Weird, interesting and slightly off-putting – for over a decade the musty shark had sat in suspended-carcinogenic-motion in an abandoned wildlife park, left alone by a series of failed handovers and administrative errors. It was an old story, and I was apparently the only one in the country to have missed it. The shark found internet fame via Youtube and urban explorers, the media found it, and the story had been recycled over and over across local lore ever since.You could probably understand my disappointment when I found out that the abandoned wildlife park in question had been bulldozed, and the shark had been removed from its dingy neon resting place. And you could probably imagine my excitement when I discovered it had been taken in by an eccentric natural history entrepreneur, removed in an extraction mission for the ages, pumped full of glycerine, and airlifted to its now-forever home: Crystal World – wholesale crystal and fossil emporium, dinosaur theme park, and, now, decaying shark sanctuary. This goddamn country never ceases to amaze. Of course I had to go. Immediately. I had to meet Rosie the Shark (she has a name, obviously) AND the legend who had saved her from leaking formaldehyde abandonment and brought her home to Crystal World.Rosie and her Crystal Empire can be found in Devon Meadows, south-east of Melbourne towards Phillip Island. When I decided to check her out, grim clouds had wrapped the sky, threatening a grizzly day ahead.
But nothing could interfere with my buoyant mood. I was going to see Rosie the Shark.Cows, farmland, trucks, highways and cars all whipped by as I trucked along. Crystal World Emporium was off a dirt path off several gravel paths and roundabouts. It was deserted when I pulled in: the Emporium didn’t open until 12p.m. Stepping in from the back entrance, I admired a set of what looked like paper mache shark jaws for a while. It wasn’t until I turned back to check that my car was locked that I’d realised I’d walked right past Rosie’s tank. There she was, her giant glass aquarium clouded by the overcast sky, suspended in murky glycerine, all twelve feet of her.
Rosie was looking rough.To be fair, I’d seen pictures from her pre-Crystal World era, and she hadn’t looked much better back then. She’d just spent most of her time in an unlit room.
I found Crystal World’s director, Tom Kapitany, working around the side of a shed, surrounded by crates of rubble. The “botanist, geologist and entrepreneur” had just returned from a fossil expedition in South Australia.“I’ve been away for a few weeks, and look at the mess I’ve got to clean up,” he said, removing a hi-vis vest to shake my hand.The Crystal World Emporium was a large shed on the property. Outside, in front of the sliding doors and scattered along the grass, were hundreds of crates filled with crystals, rocks and gems, each neatly labelled.
“The kids come here and they can go crystal digging, fill up a bag with whatever they want for a few dollars,” Tom told me, when asked how the whole setup worked. Further along the lawn was a pond, surrounded by an extensive collection of large dinosaur statues, colourful and lifelike. I took a photo with the T-Rex.
Going inside Crystal World was an absolute trip. The place was clamoured with huge geodes, small tumbled crystals, and fossils on fossils on “millions and millions of years old” fossils. “People think fossils are hard to find, but they’re everywhere,” Tom said, giving me the tour. “Archaeologists and university types just want you to think they’re hard to find.”“You see these, these are called crinoids,” he gestured to a large rock with a gross arrangement of fossilised imprints, beings which resembled what the spawn of a jellyfish and a gigantic centipede might look like, only more repulsive.“If you’ve watched the movie Matrix, you know the Sentinels? They actually went to the Australian museum, saw the crinoids, and those were the inspiration for the Sentinels’ design.”Very cool.Tom showed me around, and even let me hold a “$20,000” piece of Mars itself.
The Crystal World Emporium was a retail and wholesaler of natural artefacts, and Tom Kapitani was a natural sciences buff.“Rosie’s my pet shark, even though I don’t need to feed her any more. I do need to feed her $80,000 worth of glycerine, so it’s still an expense,” he laughed. “At least I don’t need to feed her children or dogs so that’s something.”
So how on earth did Tom come to acquire Rosie the Shark?“It was Sharon’s fault,” he gestured to Crystal World’s retail manager. “We went down there about ten years ago to look at the abandoned wildlife park, to see if we could make a dinosaur park out of it. We found it problematic. We saw her in this big, dark shed, but it was full of toxic chemicals, her tank had been shattered and it was leaking. So we gave up on that.”“Then, I was on a trip and Sharon called me saying ‘they’re going to destroy Rosie!’, so I put up my hand thinking, what the fuck am I doing? I had no idea what I was taking on,” Tom told VICE.They started negotiating with the land holder, made arrangements with the council, and had Rosie airlifted out on a giant crane. Then, they contracted scientists and taxidermists to figure out how to ensure Rosie made the trip intact. “There was a big media thing about ‘save Rosie the Shark’, and people were saying that she should rest in peace, that we should bury her, take her to the tip, dispose of her. But what sort of burial is that for a shark, or any animal? I’m a natural history nut, so saving Rosie is like saving a piece of history.”Before they moved her, Tom said, they’d had to put 24-hour security on her, because after her internet fame, people were trying to break into her tank and fuck it up. Kids were trying to break the glass of the tank, which was at the time filled with 20,000 litres of toxic chemicals, and probably would’ve killed them.
Tom said despite the cracked glass, Rosie remains in her old tank because it was worth half a million dollars. On the back side of the tank the glass had become a safety glass spider web, the result of years of vandalism attempts and quite a spooky sight, considering all the toxic chemicals and decaying shark entrails. Tom assured me it was safe, he had overseen the de-rusting, chemical flushing and cleaning of it himself. They had to have the tank appraised by a litany of experts. The whole operation was incredibly expensive, but for Tom, absolutely worth it.“People said, ‘oh, that’s a waste of money’... It’s my money! I don’t get some people, who cares what I spend my money on,” he said.“She’s famous, and I just wanted to preserve her for the sake of preserving her.”On my way out, after purchasing a citrine heart-shaped pendant as a memento, I decided to hang out with the famous shark for a while. The park was open by then, and a couple of families were sizing Rosie up. The kids were screaming gleefully – “is it sleeping?”, “is it real?”, “no it isn’t real, it’s dead”. I stood appreciating the shark with them and divulged some of my knowledge. “Her name is Rosie, she died in 1997, and her tank used to be green,” I told them. They gathered around as I showed them pictures from Rosie’s formaldehyde days.Rosie looked on at us, frozen in her glycerin world. Preventing her from floating to the top of her half-filled tank were two huge rose quartz boulders, roped to her fins. It was time to go.
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