Fish in the desert: A visit to Las Vegas’ Shark Reef Aquarium

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One of the coolest things about Mandalay Bay’s Shark Reef Aquarium in Las Vegas is standing inside a giant, clear acrylic tunnel surrounded by big, toothy sharks, stingrays, sea turtles and a host of additional deep-sea denizens swimming in a 1.3 million-gallon saltwater tank.

The tunnel is just one part of the Mandalay Bay’s impressive 90,000-square-foot aquarium, which boasts about 2,000 fish and animals. The Shark Reef opened in 2000 and sees about 1 million visitors each year.

Part of what makes the aquarium different from the typical marine-life exhibit is that the various creatures are not displayed in rows of square tanks but rather are presented in settings that resemble the stone ruins of an ancient temple and the skeletal remains of a sunken ship.

Additionally, hanging vines creep over the worn stonewalls while the temperature is maintained at a much higher humidity than is normal for Southern Nevada.

The result is a fantasy-inspired, jungle-like environment that makes you feel as if you’ve been transported to a place far from the glittery Las Vegas Strip.

One of the first displays a visitor encounters is the Komodo dragon tank. These reptiles are the largest in the world, growing to be as much as 10 feet long and 300 pounds.

Nearby is the golden saltwater crocodile tank. These yellow-colored, spotted crocodiles are an endangered species native to Thailand. The two on display, which will grow to between 10 and 20 feet, are the only members of this rare species on display in the U.S.

Next up are the water monitors, the second largest lizards in the world (after the Komodo dragon, which is a member of the same reptilian family). The brown- and white-striped monitors can weigh as much as 150 pounds when fully grown. In some countries, they are trained as pets.

Other tanks contain piranhas — those sharp-toothed fish that eat nearly anything — as well as schools of rays — elegant, gliding fish that resemble stealth bombers with a long tail.

There is also a replica of a coral reef that is filled with small sharks, little spiny fish and a half dozen other tropical species. In an adjacent tank, are more brightly colored fish including raccoon butterfly, fox face, and the well-camouflaged clown trigger fish.

At this point, you walk through the complex’s first acrylic tunnel. Here, you have the sensation of walking through water, surrounded on all sides by porcupine fish, angel fish, surgeon fish and a handful of smaller blue and pink fish. Additionally, if you look below, you can see morays, flounders, groupers and other bottom-dwelling species.

Above, you can watch black-tipped reef sharks and bonnet-head sharks (a member of the hammerhead family) plowing through the water — and imagine they’re checking you out for dinner.

Next up is a smaller tank filled with schools of lion fish. While these brown-striped, spiny creatures are beautiful to look at, the narrator points out that the spines are venomous, so touching one is painful (but not deadly).

In the center of the room is a round tank containing a smack (that’s the word for group) of jellyfish. Lazily swimming in the bluish glow of ultraviolet lights, the pulsating jellies are visually striking.

Behind the jellyfish is a tank with more black-tipped sharks and schools of beautiful, tiny neon blue fish. Nearby is a display of moray eels, tucked inside various cracks, crevices and openings in the walls.

A large, open pond in the center of the room contains baby sharks, rays, and horseshoe crabs, all species you can touch under the supervision of a staff member stationed here.

From here, the décor changes from Tarzan to Little Mermaid. In this room, which resembles a sunken ship, curved clear walls jut into the surrounding water tanks and give you the impression that you’re standing amidst the fish. Additionally, there is a plexiglass panel in the floor, so you can watch various fish swim beneath your feet.

The final chamber in the aquarium — also the exit — is another large tunnel, offering upclose views of large nurse sharks, sandbar sharks and lemon sharks.

Walking through this tube, which has a clear floor, can be unsettling because this is where the really big sharks with really big teeth swim all around you — and those glass walls just don’t seem quite thick enough.

A more recent addition to the exhibition is Polar Journal, an interactive attraction that offers a glimpse of colder locations and the animals that live there. The attraction incorporates films, touch walls, robot penguins and a motion simulator.

The Shark Reef Aquarium is open daily from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Admission is $25 for adults, $23 for seniors and $19 for kids younger than 12. Children younger than 4 are free. For more information, go to

Rich Moreno writes about the places and people that make Nevada special.


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