Submerge yourself in the world of Shark Reef Aquarium
The closest one can get to the deep blue sea without driving four hours from the desert surroundings of Las Vegas is at the south end of the Strip. Shark Reef Aquarium inside Mandalay Bay has been allowing visitors to get up close and personal with marine life for 17 years, whether separated from the various Shark Reef inhabitants by a waterproof transparent partition or brought together at a “touch pool.” The Reef has some recent additions, both biological and environmental, with a new Polar Journey awaiting guests after the undersea experiences.
First, there’s a jungle to explore. The air turns humid once inside the entrance to Shark Reef, just beyond Mandalay Bay’s restaurant promenade and South Convention Center. It’s a climate change that makes things more comfortable for the golden crocodile and Komodo dragon that are the first exhibit subjects to greet guests. Shark Reef’s croc, like his dragon neighbor, is native to the Indo-Pacific region and can grow up to 20 feet long. This one falls short of 20 feet, but its occasional shyness about showing its tail may hamper efforts to accurately estimate its length.
Rest assured, if the crocodile had its chance and was hungry enough it would be more than happy to demonstrate its “drowning-and-dining” technique. Shark Reef provides a profile of its “perfect predator”—as it does with many of the species on display—describing in brief detail the power and purposes of the crocodile’s jaws. The Komodo dragon’s enormous appetite is served by a venomous bite that slowly kills deer, goats, wild boar and “smaller Komodo dragons” that escape immediate death by “razor-sharp claws and dagger-like teeth.” This one is cute, but will likely never get a residency in the touch pool.
A Burmese python and piranha can also be found among the hanging gardens of the jungle zone before the path leads to the temple area, where the touch pool is located. First are the aquarium views, windows into a world populated by a diverse array of South American species, including tree-planting pacu, jumping arapaima, razorback catfish and motoro stingrays. Several species of colorful butterfly fish swim alongside sling-jawed wrasse and hammerhead sharks. There will be more shark encounters, but first passers-by are invited by attendants to lean over the touch pool and reach out to the horseshoe crabs, rays and a pair of young shovelnose guitarfish “with one finger, except for the eyes and tails.”
The newly arrived shovelnose guitarfish are the newest and most active members of the touch pool family, and will eventually transfer into the main 1.3-million-gallon tank that holds an array of shark species. Most of the residents are permanent and don’t seem to mind the attention as much as occupants of surrounding and adjacent tanks would. A giant Pacific octopus has a tribe of starfish for roommates in a space reserved for invertebrates, and a male green sea turtle can be found hanging about. Rescued in the Florida Keys by the crew of a boat called Ocean Diver, the turtle was found to have a collapsed lung and was outfitted with special weights that allow him to submerge underwater. No longer able to survive on his own in the ocean, “OD” is now a permanent shelled citizen of Shark Reef.
Interactive touch screens can give deeper details about the curated creatures, including the various species of shark that are the main attraction. Blacktip reef and grey reef sharks, Galapagos and Port Jackson sharks, sandbar and sand tiger sharks, blacktip reef and whitetip reef sharks, and whitespotted bamboo sharks and nurse sharks have all been counted among the population of Mandalay Bay’s dorsal-finned denizens. Trying to discern which shark belongs to which species becomes secondary to viewing them from an aquarium area designed to resemble a shipwreck.
The Wreck provides the widest vistas of the main aquarium and the closest encounters with the sharks. It’s also the home of a few adult bowmouth guitar fish, which swim right up to the glass to exchange bemused expressions with the homo sapiens on the dry side. Feedings occur after noon on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, but for a more interactive experience, a Shark Feed program is offered. Guests get a behind-the-scenes tour and serve lunch to zebra sharks with tongs before getting a demonstration of how larger species are fed by experts.
Guests can also sign up to feed stingrays and sea turtles, but if feeding sharks with tongs doesn’t provide enough of a thrill for visiting certified divers, they can always suit up and jump right in the water. Dive with Sharks is a four-hour experience featuring a tour, education and 45 minutes of submerged adrenaline. The dives change day-to-day based on the sharks’ needs, so each one is different. They never need to dine on divers though, so safety is assured.
The latest addition to Shark Reef Aquarium is Polar Journey, a sight-and-sound experience that starts out with an introductory film on an overhead dome. A wall projection allows children to feed virtual krill to underwater mammals, a pathway allows guests to walk over ice sheets that crack beneath their feet, sound-equipped chairs are programmed with the sounds of polar animals, and a motion-ride “Sea Explorer” hits both the Arctic and the Antarctic for visits with harp seals, polar bears and penguins.
You don’t need a parka to explore the colder regions of Polar Journey, or a wetsuit to encounter the creatures of Shark Reef. A willingness to explore, however, is mandatory.
Mandalay Bay, 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Sun.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat., last entry one hour prior to close, $20, $14 children 4-12; Polar Journey $15 for exhibition only, $5 with Shark Reef Aquarium ticket. 702.632.4555