AT THE HELM
Adrienne Rowland, Director of Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay
By Lisa Robertson-Dziedzic
An aquarium is an unusual attraction for a casino. How popular is the Shark Reef?
As we enter our 15th year of operation, Shark Reef Aquarium continues to be a must-see attraction in Las Vegas. We see between 900,000 – 1 million guests per year which places us as one of the top 15 aquariums in the United States.
We understand that Shark Reef Aquarium is AZA Accredited. What does this mean?
An Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) accreditation ensures that the aquarium has met mandatory, rigorous and professional standards for animal welfare and management, veterinary care, and staff training. Additionally, there are standards for public education and outreach to educate the public on the animals in our care as well as those in the wild. We are required to reapply every five years. At that time we must resubmit our application and undergo the inspection process. We have been an AZA accredited aquarium since 2003 and are currently the only facility in the state of Nevada with that distinction.
What’s a “typical” day at the Shark Reef Aquarium like for you?
I am fortunate to work in an environment where I can go feed a sea turtle or watch a conditioning session with one of our Komodo dragons. When I get to share these activities with others it’s even more rewarding because I get to show them a different side of the aquarium.
What has been the most rewarding aspect of your job?
The most rewarding aspect of my job is that we make a difference not only for the animals here at Shark Reef, but for those in the wild. When I talk with a guest visiting Shark Reef, whether it is an adult or a child, they leave with a greater understanding of the underwater world and why sharks are important. Knowing I have educated our guests and increased their awareness makes it worthwhile.
How do you acquire the animals at Shark Reef?
Animal acquisitions at Shark Reef vary based on the animal. We have received a number of sharks, fish and rays from other AZA facilities and have transferred some of our animals to other AZA facilities. Our three sea turtles are all rescue turtles that cannot be returned to the wild due to their required ongoing care. If we do acquire an animal from the wild it’s through reputable collectors that are certified to only remove animals from sustainable populations.
How much fish food do you go through in a week, or even better a year?
We go through an average of 350 pounds of fish food a week, which is just over 18,000 pounds per year. This does not include any vegetables, which a number of our fish and reptiles also eat.
Do any of the fish ever attack another?
We always plan ahead and place fish in exhibits in which they can cohabitate well with one another.
We are often asked whether sharks eat the smaller fish throughout our exhibits. It all comes back to planning and understanding that sharks are opportunistic. Typically sharks are looking for easy-to-catch prey and will typically not chase a strong, healthy fish. Our sharks are fed three times per week because that keeps them satiated and eliminates their need to hunt. Now, if a fish becomes sick or injured sharks are instinctually going to do what sharks do.
You have an endangered Komodo dragon. Can you tell us how it found its home at Shark Reef Aquarium?
Komodo dragons are managed by an AZA Species Survival Plan (SSP). This plan places animals in different aquariums based on recommendations by the program manager, typically due to space and genetic diversity.
The large male was born at Zoo Miami and after being placed on breeding loan was moved to Shark Reef Aquarium for display in 2008. As we don’t have suitable breeding facilities, we were selected to hold two additional juvenile male Komodos that were born in the Czech Republic. Once they are old enough, they will be placed for breeding at another facility.
Another unique species that calls the Shark Reef home is the Bowmouth Guitar Fish. Can you tell us a little more about these guys and why they are so unique to any aquarium?
The Bowmouth Guitarfish is currently listed as “vulnerable,” which is the classification right before “endangered.” Continued protection is important for the Bowmouth Guitarfish because this animal is often caught so its fins can be used in soup, a practice that is not sustainable.
Bowmouth Guitarfish are rare for an aquarium to have because they are a large tropical species that requires a lot of space. We currently have two in our 1.3-million gallon Shipwreck Exhibit whereas there are less than 10 in the United States. This unique species also is called a Shark Ray because it looks like it is part shark, part ray. Although sharks and rays are closely related, the Bowmouth Guitar Fish is a member of the ray family.
Do you have any other endangered species at the Aquarium? If so, how did they come to be?
In addition to our Komodo Dragons, we have three Green Sea Turtles, including O.D. who suffered a boat injury and is unable to return to the ocean. We also have three Green Sawfish from Australia that were listed as endangered after we acquired them.
You recently introduced an Animal Encounters program where guests get a behind-the-scenes tour and the opportunity to feed sea turtles, sharks and stingrays. How did this program come to be?
Prior to the Animal Encounters program’s launch, we would occasionally allow VIP’s or family members to come and watch the feeds. Our visitors were so excited and intrigued not only by the animals, but also by how and what we fed them. After observing these reactions we questioned why we were not sharing these moments with our guests and soon after designed the Animal Encounters experiences, ensuring they were educational, fun and safe to see the animals up close. The guests who have participated in this program since its launch love it and are awed by the experience.
Can you share any fun facts about the Shark Reef Aquarium?
This summer marks our 15th anniversary and in that time we have seen over 225,000 school kids through our free formal education programs. We’ve also had over 200 sharks and rays born at Shark Reef Aquarium since opening.
Finally, what do you want guests to learn after their visit to Shark Reef Aquarium?
Whether you live in the desert, on the shore or anywhere in between, the ocean is our most important resource and what makes life on this planet possible. We need to care for it and protect it, and if seeing sharks or turtles inspires someone to do that, then we all will be better for it.