Las Vegas Sun

August 24, 2019

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Sharks a hit in Las Vegas, even without an ocean

Shark Reef Aquarium

Yasmina Chavez

A child points to a Blacktip Reef Shark at the Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay Friday, Aug. 2, 2019.

Shark Reef Aquarium

A Green Sawfish approaches the glass in the viewing tunnel at the Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay Friday, Aug. 2, 2019. Launch slideshow »

Las Vegas is some 230 miles from the Pacific Ocean, but that doesn’t mean it’s sharkless.

With interest in the majestic ocean predators at a peak this time of year — the Discovery Channel’s popular Shark Week just wrapped up Sunday — Las Vegas has its share of places where people can get an up-close look at the often misunderstood animals.

Perhaps most notable is Mandalay Bay’s Shark Reef Aquarium, which features more than a dozen species of sharks and attracts about 900,000 visitors annually.

“Every week is shark week here,” Jack Jewell, the aquarium’s general curator, said jokingly. “Sharks have never really lost their appeal. There’s always been a fascination with sharks.”

Jewell said summer tends to be the busiest time of year at the aquarium, with school out and the annual return of Shark Week. Now in its 31st year, Shark Week programming attracted nearly 35 million viewers last year, according to the Discovery Channel.

“We definitely get people who celebrate Shark Week every year,” Jewell said. “Some people really love it and they let us know. I think part of the fascination is that people live on land, so this incredible predator that lives in the ocean, a place we don’t really understand, we have an innate respect for these creatures.”

Along with nearly 50 sharks, the Mandalay Bay attraction features a host of other sea creatures, including sea turtles, but the sharks are the main draw.

You won’t see any great whites — they can grown to 20 feet long and 4,200 pounds — but a 9-foot sand tiger shark is still quite a spectacle, Jewell said.

“Ask any kid what their favorite ocean creature is and they’ll probably say it’s a shark,” said Jewell, who has worked at Mandalay Bay since 1999. “When you think about it, the shark is really the spokesanimal for the world’s oceans, and everything is connected to the ocean at the end of the day.”

Despite the parched desert climate in Las Vegas, Mandalay Bay isn’t the only place to see sharks here.

The Silverton has a 117,000-gallon tropical fish aquarium that holds several species of smaller sharks, and the Golden Nugget has a 200,000-gallon tank that features eight sharks.

While people can’t swim with the sharks at the Golden Nugget — you can at Mandalay Bay for a fee of $650 if you’re properly certified — they can go down a tubular water slide that passes through the tank.

“It really makes you feel like you’re swimming with the sharks,” said Alissa Cardone, curator for Golden Nugget’s life sciences department.

“This time of year, we get a lot more guests interested in our sharks. We do different promotions for Shark Week, and we have information boards up around the hotel,” Cardone said. On Wednesdays and Sundays, guests can get an hour-long behind-the-scenes tour of the tank for $50.

More than 40 years after the movie “Jaws” hit theaters — putting sharks in the limelight for all the wrong reasons — the creatures are more popular than ever, Cardone said. Despite some adverse Hollywood portrayals, sharks are far from blood-thirsty eating machines, she said.

While some can be dangerous, sharks are not “just these mindless eating machines,” Cardone said. “Most sharks actually have a very slow metabolism. If a shark eats a big meal, it can take anywhere from 48 to 72 hours for them to digest it, so they’re not constantly hungry.”