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NOT SUCH BAD GUYS : Sea World's Newest Attraction Puts You Close Enough to Get the Story Straight From the Shark's Mouth

August 27, 1992|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition

Sharks have had a bad rap from the start, and Hollywood hasn't been much help. From the gnash-and-slash "Jaws" movies to Disney's "Little Mermaid," sharks have been largely portrayed as dim-witted eating machines that regard man as little more than dinner.

And we wonder why these guys have an attitude.

With its latest attraction, Sea World in San Diego wants to paint, if not a friendlier, at least a more accurate picture of these denizens of the deep. Operating on the "to know them is to love them" principle, Shark Encounter combines extensive information with close-up views of the creatures in non-threatening surroundings.

"Our first shark exhibit was built in the era of 'Jaws'; it was more menacing and very stark," said park spokeswoman Corrine Brindley. "With Shark Encounter, we're now trying to dispel a lot of those myths that people hold about sharks. We're trying to show that they have an important role in the ecosystem (and) that they're a vital part of the food chain."

Nearly two years in the making, Shark Encounter houses what is billed as the largest collection of sharks in the world--more than 80--in a three-part exhibit that offers visitors views from above, beside and (gulp) within the shark's environment. Although park officials won't disclose the cost of the exhibit, the grocery bill alone for these critters must be substantial.

Visitors enter Shark Encounter via a winding pathway lined with swaying palms and vivid flowers as well as signs that explain the sharks' habits and habitat. Designed as a replica of a tropical atoll, the first part of the exhibit includes a small lagoon, complete with brilliantly colored coral, recorded bird cries and an 8,000-square foot mural of azure skies and a reef.

Peering over a low wall, visitors can view such species as the white-tip reef shark, which dines on bony fish and octopus; the larger Australian leopard or zebra shark, an inshore species with a long, elegant tail or caudal fin, and the sand tiger shark, a relatively benign fellow despite its menacing body size and wicked-looking rows of jagged teeth.

"We've tried to make this a truer representation of sharks' natural habitat," Brindley said. "In fact, our curator is fond of saying that we used to bring the sharks to you, and now you are brought to the sharks. You're right in the middle of it all."

That fact hits home in the exhibit's second, and especially third, sections. Leaving the lagoon area, visitors file into a large multiscreen theater. After viewing a short documentary that peppers its more comforting messages with some chilling shots of great whites, the screens roll up to reveal a 400,000-gallon tank housing more than two dozen large sharks, as well as an assortment of rays, eels and fish.

A narrator identifies several of the species on view, including the moray eel, lemon shark and the tank's beefiest resident, the massive bull shark. Measuring up to 10 feet in length, it is one of the most dangerous species of shark. Attacks on humans have been documented in the United States, Australia and South Africa.

So, you kids ready to jump in?

Hope so, because that, in essence, is the third and final step in this encounter. Stepping aboard a moving walkway, visitors travel along the bottom of the shark tank through a 57-foot acrylic tube. Lasting about two minutes, the ride affords a unique vantage point (ever been underneath a shark?), not to mention a significant boost to the old heart rate. At the end of the tube, visitors can linger at the tank's side wall for some additional quality time.

Shark Encounter may be the park's most popular exhibit (expect a wait of 20 to 30 minutes through Labor Day), but there are several other shows and displays worth a look-see. Smaller children will enjoy the goofy "Pirates of Pinniped," a nautically themed sea lion and walrus revue.

At the California Tide Pool, children can get their mitts on a variety of sea stars, sea urchins and other inhabitants of shallow coastal waters. Walruses--including Lliyak and Tumuck, a convivial pair rescued and raised through the park's beached animals program--accept smelt snacks from visitors several times each day. Members of the park's education staff can be found at most exhibits and can answer questions about Sea World's inhabitants.

If you enjoy a splashier show, stop by the 6,000-seat Shamu Stadium, where in addition to a live show by killer whales, a short behind-the-scenes documentary and retakes of the whales' antics can be viewed on a new 300-foot video screen. Across the park at "New Friends" show, a trio of Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, a false killer whale and an incredibly agile character named Cooper, the only known performing common dolphin in the United States, kick up their flippers.

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