Anni Keller waited patiently for a break in the autograph-signing to hand Philippe Cousteau, grandson of renowned undersea explorer Jacques Cousteau, a rubber bracelet shaped like a shark.
When Keller, 13, of Jamesport, heard that Philippe Cousteau would be appearing at Atlantis Marine World in Riverhead Saturday, she wanted to give him something marine-based and she has a special interest in sharks.
"I think they're very misunderstood, instead of the unknown beauties that they really are," said Keller, referring to how sharks are depicted in movies such as "Jaws."
Keller, who hopes to be a science teacher, was one of more than 300 visitors to the aquarium who received Cousteau's autograph as part of a promotion for the Discovery Channel's Shark Week, which begins Sunday at 9 p.m.
Cousteau, 30, the chief ocean correspondent for Planet Green television network, spoke to fans about the importance of protecting the environment before a screening of the premiere episode of Shark Week, "Ultimate Air Jaws."
As the Gulf oil spill has demonstrated, damaging the environment ruins people's lives and livelihood, he said.
"I want people to see that their lives are connected to the ocean," said Cousteau, who believes it is unfortunate that conservation has become politicized. "Everybody loses when that happens," he said. "I look out here and I see all of these kids and I know they deserve clean air and fresh water."
More than 2,500 people traveled to Riverhead to visit the aquarium Saturday, many of whom were fans of Cousteau.
Rising fourth-grader Evan Houch, 9, of Shirley, had written a report about Jacques Cousteau last year at Charles E. Walters School in Yaphank and asked his aunt and uncle, Susan and Gene Frohnhoefer of Riverhead, if he could go with them to get Philippe Cousteau's autograph.
"Philippe Cousteau is the grandson of my hero," said Houch, who wants to be a oceanographer. "Just meeting Philippe is amazing."
Cousteau also participated in a shark dive with Tishawn Montero, 34, of Harlem. Montero, who won the opportunity in a contest, said it fulfilled a lifelong dream. "They are amazing. They are beautiful. You can see every stripe," she said about the 11 sharks housed in the tank. "I am so excited and happy that it [her dream to shark dive] came true."
Bryan DeLuca, the general manager at the aquarium, said more than 3,000 people have dived with the sharks since the exhibit opened in 2006.