Swimming with Sharks

Posted on: May 22 2006 | Posted in: Archive

"You can't have an aquarium without sharks," says John Hewitt, director of husbandry at the Aquarium of the Americas. Even 25 years after the release of Jaws, popular fascination with sharks still draws frenzied viewers to Aquariums.

The thriller shed light on the toothy predators and stretched some truths. Hewitt knows because he has first hand experience. He swims with them every week in the Gulf of Mexico Theatre.

"They're not the blood thirsty monsters people think they are," he says. "Sharks are tuned into finding their next meal. They don't waste energy on hunting healthy animals. They find weak creatures." But when the sand sharks in the Gulf tank swim too close to the divers, they know it's time to get out of the water.

New Orleans' Aquarium of the America's is a premier Aquarium. It celebrated its 11th anniversary in 2001. The Aquarium has come a very long way in a very short time, to the delight of more than 12 million visitors. Current exhibits include everything from rain forest dwellers to rare Southern Sea Otters and a white alligator. And everyone can brush with a shark.

Most people don't want to come so close to a shark that they can just reach out and touch it. But the shark petting zoo invites visitors to do just that. The two-foot baby nurse sharks are fairly docile and their brownish skin is very coarse. Volunteers are on hand to guide visitors. Eventually the sharks will grow to as long as eleven feet. Some will be released into the wild and others will travel to other aquariums. Up close and personal experiences with larger sharks are reserved for the staff.

Twice a week divers plunge into the Gulf tank, which is filled with sand sharks and two other species of shark. As well as 25 species of fish, including redfish, tarpon and sting rays. The Aquarium feeds the fish three times a week. In the wild, though, sharks may eat only once or twice a month. "They're very efficient," Hewitt says. "They conserve energy and prey on the weak." Thus they haven't emptied the tank of other species. Though there are no sickly looking fish in the exhibit. And once when a sting ray gave birth to young, the sharks got to several before Aquarium staff could scoop them all from the tank.

"The truth is: living in nature is very hard," Hewitt says. "There's a lot of disease and competition for food and territory." Animals at the Aquarium probably have much longer life expectancies than they would in the wild. That's particularly so for creatures like the Aquarium's white alligator. In the wild, it's extremely rare for white alligators to be born. But without the camouflage of regular alligators it is even harder for them to survive. Birds like Herons prey on alligator young.

Many creatures are far more susceptible to competition from humans. Even shark populations are down considerably as a consequence of commercial fishing, says Hewitt. Tuna populations are also down. This year the Aquarium added sea horses and dragons. These exotic creatures are also being overfished. For the next Aquarium expansion, Hewitt would like to see an exhibit on migratory fish, like blue fin tuna, whale sharks and marlin, before they're extinct.

The Aquarium houses several creatures whose species are battling extinction. Two otters moved into their New Orleans home this year. Buck and Emma are among the estimated 2,000 Southern Sea Otters known to exist. Both are rescued orphaned pups from off the coast of California. Emma hadn't adequately mastered hunting for food, and Buck had taken to pursuing and trying to climb into canoes and kayaks. Both were deemed better off in protective environments.

Otters normally spend most of their time grooming their fur and eating. In the chilly waters off Monterrey they stay warm by nuzzling tiny air bubbles into their fur and by constantly eating. Otters eat as much as a third of their own weight every day. Buck and Emma spend their time rolling in ice, eating and diving at the Aquarium.

Scientists hope the young pups will be the first Southern Sea Otters to reproduce in captivity. That's an area of particular interest at the Audubon Institute, which includes the Aquarium, the Zoo and several other area attractions and institutes. The Audubon Institute Center for Research of Endangered Species has made news in the past few years with its efforts to birth young from frozen embryos implanted in surrogate mothers from other species. Jazz, a baby African wild cat, was born that way at the center in 2000. The institute is creating a frozen zoo of eggs and genetic materials so that as the technologies develop, they'll have the potential to re-populate endangered or extinct species. The new technology is becoming part of the effort to preserve the natural world.

While aquariums have always entertained, conservation is at the heart of any aquarium's mission. They inherently educate viewers about creatures people would never stumble upon. While old aquariums tended to present boxes of fish, new aquariums have become more like modern zoos. They try to display creatures in ecosystems as closely approximating their natural habitat as possible. So the Aquarium's Rain Forest Room is suitably lush and balmy. The Caribbean tank is full of reef fish that share the natural environment.

Maintaining an Aquarium is in many ways more demanding than a zoo. Hewitt and the animal husbandry staff and the engineers are responsible for maintaining each creature's entire environment, from water temperatures to monitoring the interaction of species sharing ecosystems. Staff are on hand 24 hours a day to manage the nearly million and a half gallons of water in the Aquarium.

In spite of the requirements to maintain an ecosystem, the Aquarium is changing all the time. Locals are often surprised at what's been added since their last visit, says Hewitt. And the Aquarium also has space for visiting exhibits. The current temporary exhibit focuses on frogs. It's a fitting exhibit, since the presence of frogs in an ecosystem indicates a healthy marine environment.