The ocean is probably the last thing people think of when they visit the dry desert of Las Vegas, but the Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay is changing that.
Housing more than 1,200 species of marine life including sharks, exotic fresh and saltwater fish, a 300-pound sea turtle and much more, Shark Reef offers the aquatic experience of a lifetime.
Shark Reef is reminiscent of an ancient temple slowly sinking into the ocean. The tunnel, which houses five species of sharks and the aquarium's largest animals, is designed to look like a sunken shipwreck and contains an astounding 1.3 million gallons of water. Here, visitors can witness a scuba diver's view of these mesmerizing creatures.
Shark Reef opened in Las Vegas in 2000 and is the only accredited aquarium by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association in Nevada. Popular with tourists and marine experts alike, Shark Reef is considered one of the most prestigious facilities of its kind, along with the San Diego Zoo and Sea World.
"We're on that same level as far as animal care, education and public outreach," said Adrienne Rowland, director of the Shark Reef. "Only 10 percent of aquariums are accredited in the whole country."
In addition to the shark tunnel, guests can experience exhibits featuring crocodiles, freshwater fish, piranhas and much more.
Sharks, piranhas and touchable fish
Some of the sharks here can appear quite frightening. For instance, the nurse shark and tiger-striped shark both measure up to nine feet long, while others have so many teeth that they can barely close their mouths. This attraction also houses two tiger sharks. These tiger sharks measure more than six feet in length, but some measure up to 14 feet in length. Tiger sharks are also known to consume unusual objects such as license plates, tires and baseballs.
The Shark Reef is home to more than 1,200 different species of sharks, tropical and fresh water fish, reptiles, marine invertebrates and rays.
Sharks: Includes blacktip reef sharks, whitetip reef sharks, bonnethead sharks, nurse sharks, sand tiger sharks, sandbar sharks, zebra sharks, white spotted bamboo sharks, port jackson sharks and lemon sharks. Some species of sharks at Shark Reef will grow to be more than 18 feet long.
Tropical and Fresh Water Fish: Include several species of angelfish, puffer fish and tang fish. Venomous tropical fishes include such species as lionfish and foxface.
Reptiles: Golden crocodiles, green sea turtles and ravenous water monitors are among the reptile species displayed at Shark Reef.
Eels, Marine Invertebrates, Rays: Eels, invertebrates and rays each have exhibits to showcase their species at Shark Reef. Moray eels, southern stingrays and hundreds of moon jellyfish are among these creatures.
Total Number of Animals: Approx. 2,000
Largest Animal: Nurse shark at 9 feet long
Smallest Animal: Blue damsel fish at 1/2 to 1 inch long
Shark Diet: Younger sharks are fed daily, while adult sharks are fed three times per week. A 200-pound sand tiger shark will eat about four pounds of food every week, mostly capelin, squid, mackerel, prawn and scallops.
Total size: More than 105,000 square feet
In all, Shark Reef exhibits and the Animal Husbandry Building facilities hold almost 2 million gallons of seawater.
But are sharks really as scary as we perceive them to be? "We're not an intended food item for the sharks," Rowland explained. "Sharks, like most predators, are actually opportunistic, meaning they want an easy catch. They want to find an animal that is sick or injured…they're more likely to hunt something like that."
Since the sharks at the Shark Reef are fed on a daily basis, the surrounding animals are in no danger. In fact, the half-inch Blue Damsel, the tiniest fish at the Shark Reef, shares the same tank with these gigantic creatures.
"Some of these fish have been in here since the day we opened!" she exclaimed. "We aren't constantly having to restock. Because of the way we manage the feeding process, it's never an issue. Sharks are fed three times a week, which is more than they would probably eat in the wild."
When divers swim in to clean these tanks, they wear a stainless steel mesh, similar to what knights wore long ago. The metal helps keep the animals away so the humans don't look like food.
Surprisingly enough, the sharks here get along with everyone quite "swimmingly." The aquarium also houses piranhas. But contrary to popular belief, they also are not as intimidating as others perceive them to be.
At the Shark Reef come see an eight-foot-long Komodo dragon, the largest species in the lizard family. The Komodo dragon is known to carry unique hunting skills.
"They rely on that perception of smell in order to find their prey," explained Rowland. "When they walk, they actually move their head side to side. They can tell if the scent is coming from the left or from the right."
Once the Komodo dragon seizes its prey, it makes sure to leave as little leftover as possible: "The Komodo dragon would eat bones, hooves, fur - everything," Rowland noted. "They leave 12 percent of the carcass."
The Komodo's original habitat is in Indonesia. However, many perish from extreme weather conditions. Classified as an endangered species, there are only 3,000 to 5,000 that live in the wild. At Shark Reef, this particular Komodo lives within an environment similar to its habitat, complete with sand, boulders and a pool.
Shark Reef makes history fun
"They can be dangerous," Rowland pointed out. "You'll be more likely to be bit if you just flick the surface of the water as opposed to sticking your whole hand in."
In fact, piranhas are actually more afraid of us than we are of them: "They're a little bigger than your hand," Rowland said. "People swim and bathe in the Amazon without incidents. Just like anything, piranhas are careful. They're actually pretty skittish."
While their teeth look treacherous, piranhas mainly use their chompers for eating purposes.
"Basically, their teeth are meant to shear flesh off," Rowland noted. "They take one or two bites and swallow the food whole, so they're pretty much full. It takes literally, hundreds - sometimes more - when you see those videos of them going after a large animal."
Since many of us aren't planning to pet a piranha anytime soon, visitors can enjoy getting a "hands-on" experience with various stingrays, eels and crabs at the touch pool.
"This is actually one of our most popular exhibits because of the interaction," Rowland said. "What's really cool is when you get a kid who's afraid and you get them to touch it…then you can't get rid of them!"
If the stingrays are not in the mood for petting, the animals make it pretty clear: "If they don't want to be touched, they go in the center, or come out and swim along or rest on the edge," Rowland said.
The Shark Reef is also home to a handful of unique looking sea creatures. These include huge, colorful catfish, saw fish (Its nose looks like an actual chainsaw!), beautifully patterned black-and-white potato cod fish and spiky mine urchins (which look a lot like baby porcupines). The mine urchins do not move much, but visitors may catch a group of them munching on a "cookie," a nutritious wafer created specifically for their diet.
Joining the family July 2010, visitors can now see a live female bowmouth guitarfish. Better known as a shark ray, this animal is considered a vulnerable species and very little is known about it. The 5-foot, 90-pound shark ray is one of only a dozen featured in aquariums throughout the United States.
For those who want an in-depth, personal enrichment about the animals, audio wands are available in Spanish, English and Japanese. In addition, Shark Reef's naturalists are available to answer any questions visitors may have.
Guests can also take part of the sea with them long after they leave Shark Reef.
Located at the end of the exhibit, Shark Reef's gift shop features an assortment of figurines, picture frames, trinkets and souvenir photos for those who took one right before the tour.