This is Las Vegas, not the Discovery Channel. We’re home to Shark Reef, not Shark Week.
But participating in the Animal Encounters program at Shark Reef Aquarium really isn’t that different from watching Rob Lowe riding on the back of two sharks.
Fine. I made that up. It’s actually nothing like watching Rob Lowe riding on the back of two sharks.
Here’s what it is like: Instead of sitting on your couch watching sharks on TV, you can roll up your sleeves and feed them here. Or you can opt to feed the sea turtles or stingrays and horseshoe crabs (and they don’t even currently have a week of cable television programming dedicated to them).
The experience starts with a behind-the-scenes tour of the Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay by an expert guide, past enormous filtration tanks, racks of wet suits and an emergency eye-wash station and as you learn about the day-to-day operations and safety measures of the 90,560-square-foot aquarium.
Next, you head down to the rather fishy-smelling kitchen (for obvious reasons) where you pick up a meal of decapitated fish for the sharks, lettuce and bell peppers for the sea turtles, or shrimp, krill and fish for the stingrays and horseshoe crabs. You slip into your Guest Aquarist apron and it’s on to a room above the aquarium’s large shipwreck exhibit.
This is where you feed your new friends along with Shark Reef aquarists as part of the animals’ normally scheduled meals.
Animals at Shark Reef are well fed, not only in quantity but quality. That’s part of the reason why there need be no fear when feeding some of the more dangerous animals, such as the sharks. They are fed a sustainable meal three times a week — more than they would eat in the wild.
While popular culture paints these guys and gals as dangerous predators, they swim quite peacefully with a variety of sea life, including Shark Reef’s tiniest fish, a half-inch Blue Damsel.
For the Shark Feeding program, you feed the reef’s two zebra sharks, a polka-dotted male and a female, as the aquarists feed other sharks and rays. Even though none of the animals are named, I like to think of the female zebra shark as Dotty. I found myself clasping a dead fish on the end of a long feeding tong in the water as Dotty swam right up from the shipwreck exhibit and gracefully slurped it in.
The Turtle Feeding program is slightly different. The turtles are sequestered into a small area apart from the rest of the aquarium as guest aquarists throw lettuce and bell peppers into the water, and also individually feed the turtles a “brownie” from a feeding tong. At 300 pounds, these turtles (including the one animal at Shark Reef with a name, a rescue turtle named OD) are enormous. I had to resist the urge to re-enact a scene from “Finding Nemo” and jump in for a ride on their backs.
Both of these programs take place in the afternoon, and the Stingray Feed takes place in the morning at the touch pool inside the Shark Reef. You feed these guys their fishy breakfast before Shark Reef opens to the public.
Afterwards, you receive a souvenir photo of your feeding experience. For an extra fee, a guided tour of Shark Reef is provided.
All in all, the Animal Encounters program is a chance to experience a side of Shark Reef you won’t typically see. It’s one thing to watch these aquatic creatures swimming around on the other side of glass, but getting up close and personal — knowing you could technically reach out and touch these guys — is a whole other story.
I pretty much want to take Dotty home with me. But I don’t think she’ll fit in my betta fish tank.