Sin City’s “Green” Shark Reef Aquarium

In trendy Las Vegas, Shark Reef Aquarium uses its unique motif to help educate and to complement its commitment to doing things “green.”

As promised, at the end of this blog is the first of two videos; another behind-the-scenes clip will appear in next week’s blog, of my recent visit to the Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay, in Las Vegas, Nevada. But first, a bit more about Shark Reef.

Have a Theme
The 3.8-mile-long Las Vegas Strip is known for its 24-hour pulse. Las Vegas Boulevard is an often clogged artery of bumper-to-bumper exhaust-spewing vehicles coursing between a canyon of casinos, each more grand than the one before (of course, it depends on personal preference and whether you’re heading west toward the newer resorts or east toward town and the older joints) and occasionally braking for casino surfers looking to try their luck elsewhere.

Most all of the Vegas casinos have slots; blackjack; all-you-can-eat buffets; lounge singers, comedians or magicians as well as attached hotels in common. So what’s a destination on the Strip have to do to get noticed? Well, during the mega-casino boom in the 1990s and 2000s, properties on and about the Strip have increasingly come to rely on theming (e.g., a faux New York skyline, canals of Venice, the Eiffel Tower at half-scale and an emerald-green pyramid of Giza with Sphinx in repose) as a way to draw customers. As part of this business model, nongaming attractions became all the rage in an attempt by properties to differentiate themselves as well as offering something for those with self-imposed limits (like mine, not to exceed one Andrew Jackson) or kids in tow (again, myself).

It is into this competitive business atmosphere that the almost $60-million, 1.6-million-gallon, jungle-themed Shark Reef Aquarium opened in 2000, as not only the signature attraction of the Mandalay Bay Resort but also the only true multi-exhibit aquarium on the Las Vegas Strip and the only AZA-accredited (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) zoo or aquarium in the state of Nevada.

It is easy to tell that Shark Reef Aquarium General Curator Jack Jewell is especially proud of his aquarium’s AZA accomplishment. “The AZA is the accrediting agency of all superlative zoos and aquariums in the United States. There are 2,500 zoos and aquariums in the U.S. and only 250 of them are AZA-accredited institutions. We are in that rank since 2003, with that comes specific requirements that you provide education, conservation, research, appropriate care for the animal collection — all that. So it’s very important.”

Educating Landlubbers
Since opening, more than 8 million visitors, many of a decidedly landlubberish sort, have passed through Shark Reef’s zigzagging pathways, past 14 terrestrial, freshwater and saltwater exhibits displaying more than 2,000 animals. In its nearly 10 years, more than 100,000 Las Vegas school children have been able to utilize the aquarium’s school group program. According to Jewell about 60 school kids a day traipse the echoey corridors of Shark Reef, as they learn about freshwater and marine animals many had until recently only seen in movies, books, magazines or known, tangentially I might add, through animated offerings such as Finding Nemo or SpongeBob.

Purposeful Exhibits
General Curator Jack Jewell was gracious enough to give my family and me a personal tour through Shark Reef’s tropical jungle, sunken temple and into a shipwreck lying on the seafloor, with some 30 sharks of multiple species, sawfishes and rays visibly swimming by the timbered skeleton of ship’s bow.

How does Jewell feel about Shark Reef’s motif?

“It’s been a great experience for me in that I came from a traditional aquarium background,” Jewell said. “It was new to me to see something that was so themed, but over the years theming has become the norm for everything — zoos, aquariums. What it is, is a need to satisfy the entire experience for people.”

Rather than give away too much (I’m forever giving away the ending of movies with my snap reviews), I’ll just bullet point some of my favorite exhibits.

• Rift Lake cichlids: This interesting display affords passerbys a unique top-down vantage. While the exhibit currently houses several different species of Lake Tanganyika cichlids, Shark Reef aspires to eventually be able to procure some endangered Lake Victorian Haplochromis cichlids, which is why the staff is busily “honing their husbandry” skills with the more common Tanganyikans.

“What we want to do is manipulate this to where it is suitable for Lake Victoria Haplochromis spp. These are the only fish that have a Survival Plan with the AZA, no other fish do,” Jewell said.

In fact, biologists estimate that 300 out of 500 unique cichlid species have already been lost from Lake Victoria. Voracious Nile perch (introduced) are often singled out as one of the principal causes in the demise of so many Haplochromis species.

Currently, more than 2,800 Lake Victorian cichlids representing more than 13 species are being kept and cared for by 15 AZA aquariums. Visit for more information.

• Amazonian predators: This large tank is filled with most of the giant charismatic freshwater fishes of the Amazon region. As Jewell provided some background information, our eyes were transfixed as large freshwater stingrays flapped by and as pacus the size of dinner plates paid us little heed. The pacus were acquired from the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans in 2005, prior to Hurricane Katrina’s onslaught. “So we were able to get these guys out of there before they would have lost their lives in that terrible event,” Jewell said.

According to Jewell the freshwater stingrays dovetail nicely into Shark Reef’s education initiative in that they keep the “shark-ray theme going as well as informing people about something most people don’t know and that’s that freshwater stingrays even exist.”

• Sunken temple Caribbean fishes: This large tank houses lots of flashy looking reef fishes, including very colorful and difficult-to-keep creole wrasses. And like all of Shark Reef’s exhibits, there’s an educational and conservation component behind this one as well.

Jewell, at his circumspect best, said, “People don’t tend to worry about things that aren’t in their backyard, but if you can somehow connect it to something, it makes a difference. From the hobby’s perspective, Caribbean fishes do constitute a significant portion of the trade. We try to get all the players: parrots, grays, Frenchs, queens, rock beauties, blues — all the main angels.”

• Touch pool: Kids, including big ones, love these kinds of hands-on exhibits. Shark Reef’s touch pool area affords kids of all ages the opportunity to one-finger touch the slimy backs of stingrays (I even stroked the impressive, barred, bony tail of a particularly large ray dominating a central place in the tank) as well as the otherworldly horseshoe crabs. (Check out “Crab, Grunion and Moth Migrations,” posted Dec. 18, 2009, for more on horseshoes.)

• Shipwreck area: The Shark Reef walking tour concludes at a spectacular sunken shipwreck, with its timbered skeleton “open” in the bow and starboard sections to swarming sharks. The shipwreck is the focal point of Shark Reef’s 1.3-million-gallon main saltwater tank. This is where most of the aquarium’s sharks reside, including a large female sand tiger with impressive protruding hooked teeth, as well as several species of sawfishes, large rays, moray eels and green sea turtles. This is also where Mandalay Bay guests can sign up for Shark Reef’s Dive with Sharks program. Dives are limited to one a day — Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday — and to two guests and one dive instructor. As an added safety precaution, participants donned special chain mail diving suits that they wear for the duration of the dive. One participant described how he forgot he was in an aquarium. I guess you lose your bearings when diving in a two-story-deep tank with toothy fishes bigger than you brushing by.

Staff divers also wear chain mail during routine tank maintenance. “Whenever you’re diving with sharks you have to have some type of safety protocol. The safety protocol at a lot of aquariums involves team diving, where one person is guarding and another person is cleaning. We use chain mail, so when we have two divers in the water, we have two divers working. It really increases and enhances your manpower,” Jewell said.

The shipwreck and adjoining acrylic tunnels allow visitors to view fishes from underneath and from just about every other angle. You can also look up through the water column and see one of the feeding stations, where specially trained aquarium professionals wait on and feed each animal individually. Zebra sharks have to bump a target with their snouts before they are fed. Sawfishes are conditioned to eat off long poles with fish dangled just above the shipwreck’s surface. The green sea turtles are so intimidating to fellow tankmates, one male is 325 pounds, that they are conditioned to show up at a special water-filled pen where they are gated and fed separately from the rest of the tank.

My family and I got a unique behind-the-scenes look from the catwalks overlooking the main tank. I had a bird’s-eye view directly down on the shipwreck’s bow and the menagerie of large, differently colored sharks, rays, sawfishes and groupers, which were clearly visible as they broke the surface in their quest for tasty morsels.

“We feed each animal here individually. Each shark is fed individually and it’s logged, so every single animal here is numbered, it’s PIT tagged and we have its exact diet from every feed. They are conditioned to feed from a certain location, and that’s how they feed and only how they feed.

“It takes roughly two hours with about four or five people. They rotate, so everyone eventually feeds everything,” Jewell said.

Planning a Visit
If you are heading to Vegas, plan on paying Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay a visit. Go to to find out more about the many conservation programs Shark Reef is spearheading, one of which involves breeding and saving critically endangered Devil’s Hole pupfish (see my blog “I Like My Fish Extra Dry,” posted Jan. 16, 2009), as well as to find out more about admission, hours and directions. Enjoy your visit, I know my daughters, wife and I did. And a special thanks to Shark Reef Aquarium General Curator Jack Jewell for showing us around.

I hope this video clip (as well as next week’s) of Shark Reef inspires you to learn more and to take your hobby to the next level — whether that means setting up a Tanganyikan cichlid display, taking up scuba diving or someday becoming a marine biologist. Enjoy!

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