Swimming with Sharks at Mandalay Bay Shark Reef

While people are at home watching the Discovery Channel’s annual Shark Week in late July, visitors to Las Vegas can see the real thing up close at Mandalay Bay’s Shark Reef. In this year-round total sensory experience, guests can feed sharks, dive with them, touch them, and view the mysterious underseas world of this fascinating dangerous predator.

Divers get up close to the residents at Shark Reef - Photo By Bryan Haraway

Divers get up close to the residents at Shark Reef – Photo By Bryan Haraway

In 14 exhibits featuring 2,000 animals including sharks, giant rays, endangered green turtles, piranha, and a Komodo Dragon, Shark Reef takes visitors on a journey through an ancient temple slowly being claimed by the sea. The largest exhibit is the 1.3 million-gallon shipwreck where visitors experience a panoramic view of the tank, brimming with sharks and fish, as they walk through an acrylic tunnel.

Guests who are certified divers can partake in the attraction’s Dive with Sharks program and swim with a higher concentration of exotic sharks than one would ever find in the wild. Others can become an Aquarist for a day and feed a shark, stingray, or turtle via its Animal Encounters program. At the Touch Pool, folks can touch an ever-changing collection of animals including sharks, rays, and horseshoe crabs.

“At recent count, we have 11 species of sharks including sand tigers, sandbars, gray reef, Galapagos, white-tipped reef, nurse sharks, and zebra sharks,” said Jack Jewel, General Curator of Shark Reef, who has worked with sharks for more than 30 years, 18 of them at the attraction. “The largest sharks, which are in the male-dominated big exhibit that houses 31 of our 46 sharks, are the sand tigers, which reach eight to nine feet in length.”

Addressing one of the biggest misconceptions about sharks, Jewel reveals that contrary to popular belief, sharks don’t eat very much and feed only on smaller fish. In fact, the sharks at Shark Reef are only fed three times a week. He notes they possess a tremendous digestive system in which everything they eat is totally liquefied. He also states that they are assertive but not aggressive, the latter being confused with feeding activity because when they attack prey, they have to win the battle to eat.

Sandbar Shark gliding through Mandalay Bay's Shark Reef exhibit

Sandbar Shark gliding through Mandalay Bay’s Shark Reef exhibit

“Feeding at Shark Reef is quite a process,” Jewel explained. “Each individual shark is fed with tongs. They are conditioned to go to a specific location to be fed. They are given fish and frozen fish, primarily mackerel, herring, and sardines. They also get some squid and other invertebrates. We use classic operant conditioning in which an animal goes to a certain location, performs a behavior, and is rewarded.” He says that sharks are relatively food-motivated, and ninety-nine percent of the time, feeders wait for the sharks to come to them. They use repetitive cues so the sharks have a sense of when feeding will occur.

Jewel says what fascinates him most about sharks is that they always remain in touch with their natural instincts and characteristics, the mystery being that they don’t model themselves to us, even in captivity. Nor, with all the births at the attraction, has he witnessed any maternal instinct or emotion from the animals.

The curious and beautiful shark ray at Mandalay Bay Shark Reef

The curious and beautiful shark ray at Mandalay Bay Shark Reef

“I don’t think they have any sense for us at all,” he determined. “They are instinctual machines. They don’t look at us as prey, but there are things humans do that make us easy targets. Sharks go for weak injured prey and we’re awkward swimmers, for example. When we thrash around, they think we’re injured.“
“In the wild, sharks are endangered by climate change, overfishing, and ocean acidification,” Jewel summed up. “Here, we manage their health. We want people to see these beautiful animals at Shark Reef and we want to call upon them to help preserve them and the environment they live in. It’s for all of our good.”

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