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Shark! Pet Some, Watch Others and Learn the Difference

A new exhibit at the Long Beach Aquarium includes a giant tank for dangerous species and touch pools for gentle ones, a chance for hands-on education.

July 05, 2002|LESLIE GORNSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Gliding about in a murky quarantine tank at the Aquarium of the Pacific lurks one lucky shark.

Barely visible in the bubbly water, the sand tiger shark will soon join about 150 other creatures in a $3-million, 10,000-square-foot exhibit at the Long Beach aquarium.

The open-air display features a giant tank for so-called toothy sharks; three touch pools housing more gentle species; a gift shack, cafe and an outdoor theater; giant statues; and plenty of hands-on kiosks explaining sharks' biology, reproduction and importance in the food chain. It's the newest permanent exhibit at the facility, whose annual attendance has been about 1 million--roughly half of initial projections when it opened in 1998.

As massive as the shark lagoon's budget and size is its mission: Correct misunderstandings associated with these creatures, many of which are endangered.

In fact, Sandy Trautwein, curator of fish and invertebrates, is even encouraging visitors to touch certain shark breeds in an effort to bridge some of the gap between surf and turf.

"By letting people touch sharks, we're hoping to build a newly found respect for these creatures," she says.

Such was the case last weekend when Makenna Lammons of Riverside was visiting. "They're cool to touch," the 7-year-old said of the touch-tank sharks. "They kind of feel like leather."

Contrary to popular perception, shark attacks are rare and fatalities even rarer. In the U.S., people are 30 times more likely to be killed by lightning than a shark, according to the International Shark Attack File, a compilation of all known incidents.

In addition, of approximately 350 species, fewer than 10% are dangerous to people, scientists say. Meanwhile, humans kill more than 20 million sharks each year.

Trying to counteract fears stirred up by films such as the classic "Jaws" and a rash of reports about attacks last year is, of course, a bit of a double-edged sword.

The price the captive sharks will pay is a steep one--freedom. But in exchange, they'll get what amounts to an underwater luxury suite that officially opened about three weeks ago. Sharks may come off as indestructible on the Discovery Channel, but once in custody, many become fragile, requiring everything from special vitamins to plankton filters.

The history of keeping some sharks in captivity has been fraught with failure. Biologists say great white sharks, for example, have never been able to survive more than three weeks in captivity. During a series of disastrous efforts in the 1980s, aquariums learned that great whites refuse to eat and often bang up against the walls of their tanks, unable to accept anything other than the open ocean.

Only this year has an aquarium decided to give great white husbandry another go; the Monterey Bay Aquarium says it wants to capture a great white pup and eventually move it into a 1-million-gallon tank.

"There are no experts who can tell you what is going on with these sharks," Monterey Bay Aquarium field operations curator John O'Sullivan told The Times last month. "You can fill a thimble with the information we know about them."

So far, efforts to find a pup have been unsuccessful.

Once captured, if the pup fails to thrive, the Monterey aquarium has promised to release it. But Trautwein's staff in Long Beach isn't thinking about such a precarious endeavor. They maintain that educating the public can be done without risking the lives of the more delicate species.

"People are still really fascinated by sharks--toothy, toothy sharks," Trautwein says, so the aquarium is loading up on sand tiger, sandbar, white tip and other hardier types. They'll be visible in the big tank that's part of the lagoon. Visitors can watch them from above or at eye level.

Visitors who want to get a sense of a great white will get their chance--sort of. Six of the largest, most interesting shark breeds are represented, actual size, on giant tiles strewn throughout the exhibit.

But most of the live sharks at this exhibit are the touchable sort. Swimming in three shallow pools are zebra, bamboo and epaulette sharks, whose skin feels like fine sandpaper.

"It was rougher than I thought it would be," said Nanette Taylor of Laguna Niguel, who brought her 10-year-old niece to the aquarium. Even though she knew the sharks were safe to touch, she exercised some caution. "We kind of stayed away from the mouth region."

Still, these animals are so tame that a few sit motionless while half a dozen kids gently paw at them. Some of the bamboo sharks even seem like sleepy housecats, swimming by lazily and raising their heads a bit to be "petted." The sharks can always scuttle off into designated hiding areas if they get overstimulated.

They also like to pile on top of one another in corners and fall asleep, or whatever the shark equivalent of that is, for reasons that aren't quite clear.

The special hiding areas are the tip of the fin when it comes to accommodations designed for these ancient creatures.

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