- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2003

BALTIMORE — Just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water, along comes the National Aquarium in Baltimore with an exhibit it says will bring visitors “uncomfortably close” to sharks, and an overnight adventure that lets people actually sleep with these fishes.

Yes, the aquarium is counting on popular fear of the demonized critters to draw visitors, but its motive is to induce respect and concern for them rather than terror: This is an animal whose populations have decreased as much as 90 percent in the past 15 years.

“People tend to fear what they don’t know,” says Jenny Fiegl, an animal educator with the aquarium and assistant manager of media relations there. “People think they know a lot about sharks, but most of what they know are myths floating around in the popular media, such as ‘Jaws.’

“What we’re trying to do is demonstrate to people that sharks have much more to fear from us than we have to fear from them.”

So here we have the exhibit, called “Shark Quest,” which started in March. Among its promises are a look at the fossilized jaws of the mammoth Megalodon, an extinct shark that was about three times larger than today’s great white; a chance to touch a live juvenile bamboo shark; and that “uncomfortably close” encounter — nose-to-nose, even — with the sharks that encircle visitors on the first and second levels of the 225,000-gallon, ring-shaped Open Ocean exhibit.

As if that weren’t close enough, now comes “Sleepover with the Sharks,” an overnighter that, on selected dates this month and next, offers behind-the-scenes tours after the aquarium has been closed to the public, along with a chance to bed down in sleeping bags near the silent swimmers in the underwater viewing area.

The point of this buddy-buddy schmoozing, Ms. Fiegl says, is to expand people’s knowledge of the 400 species of shark so they can see the creatures for what they are — not so intimidating after all.

“Of those 400 species, approximately 50 percent never reach a size larger than 3 feet,” Ms. Fiegl says. “The typical shark will grow to the size of your average first grader.”

Most are not vicious. According to the aquarium, a human is 250 times more likely to be killed by lightning than by a shark.

Big or little, sharks’ numbers are falling fast, a result of overfishing, lack of legal protection, a long reproductive cycle (of one to two years) and human indifference born of dislike. According to figures accumulated by Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network run jointly by the World Wildlife Fund and the World Conservation Union, the death rate for sharks from fishing alone is 11,400 — per hour.

Half of the nearly 100 million sharks killed each year are slaughtered deliberately — for their cartilage (which a debunked folk myth holds can prevent or cure cancer), for their meat, for their teeth or their fins. Another half are caught in long lines, trawls, gill nets or other fishing gear and die as “bycatch,” the unintended harvest of the world’s fisheries.

And all this matters?

Yes, the aquarium says. “Sharks are among the top predators,” Ms. Fiegl says. “We need them because they help keep the ocean in balance.”

• • •

This overnight flirtation with danger does not come cheap, and is not for everyone. The group rate for 35 tickets, for example, is $2,300 — and no one under age 8 is admitted.

And the event may overemphasize the danger a tad. In fact, the sharks share the spotlight with an assortment of rays, which along with sharks and skates make up the taxonomic class known as Chondrichthyes, or “cartilaginous fish” — and visitors who spread out their sleeping bags to catch a few winks will do so hard by the sting rays.

What’s more, the first attraction on the bill is a performance by that Bambi of the sea, the dolphins, who aren’t even fish at all, but cetaceans of the mammal class.

Here’s what’s in store for aquarium sleepers, based on a preview one night in June guided by Wendy Shepherd, visitor program coordinator, and instructors Ryan Bromwell and Linda Meekes — who during the day work as a biology teacher and captain of a tall ship, respectively.

• Home base is a classroom above the aquarium’s food court. You’ll stow your gear there, then walk to a nearby amphitheater for the dolphin show. Resident dolphins play catch, turn somersaults, walk on the water and perform other stunts as the humans cheer and try to avoid getting splashed.

The dolphins are only an aperitif. After a few icebreaking exercises and a dinner of sandwiches, cole slaw, salad and cookies, comes the main attraction: sharks and their fishy cousins.

• You’ll be led to the large pool in the heart of the aquarium that employees call the “ray tray,” since it contains not only several species of shark (sand tiger, bonnethead, sandbar and zebra) but the “Wings in the Water” exhibit of rays. A smaller “Open Ocean” tank placed directly above it contains several other types of shark, including large, brownish nurse sharks resting on the bottom.

Four types of rays are also visible — cownose, roughtail, spotted eagle and spiny butterfly — most of them swimming gracefully, either flapping their fins like birds’ wings or moving them in an undulating way. A somewhat reclusive sea turtle named Calypso lives there too.

Nearby is a smaller, square tank containing several small sand tiger sharks from the Omaha Zoo, with two of their egg cases fastened to the wall so a viewer can see the unhatched baby shark (called a pup) swimming around inside.

• From there, visitors go down a corridor and up a staircase to a short hallway of rough concrete, which is directly above the large pool just visited and below another one. It’s “a kind of water sandwich,” Mr. Bromwell says.

An unmarked door opens onto a long, narrow catwalk suspended only a short distance above the clear, swirling water. There, visitors walk out to see a sand tiger shark swimming directly below and a nurse shark on the bottom. The more than 300,000 gallons of water come from Baltimore’s own water supply, with its chlorine removed and other elements added to simulate seawater as much as possible.

• Walk down several other hallways and past a bank of lockers to the kitchen, which has an adjoining walk-in freezer. It may look like a restaurant kitchen, but notice the differences: no stove, no oven. And it’s highly doubtful that the average restaurant includes hammers and saws among its utensils.

“These sharks are fed a wonderful diet — the best that the Fells Point Fish Market can offer,” Mr. Bromwell says of their menu. A chart shows the daily food guidelines for the ray tray: 10 pounds each of shrimp, squid and smelt, 20 clams and four mackerel. In nature a shark’s diet consists mostly of fish, plankton, or krill, a type of small shrimp.

• Next to the kitchen is a room in which live food is raised and stored. It contains tanks of brine shrimp (popularly known as “sea monkeys”), horseshoe crabs and small black fish called mollies. A small pool connects directly to the shark exhibit, over which a red vinyl stretcher is suspended. Aquarium employees lure the sharks into that stretcher in order to give them their regular medical checkups.

• Also beside the kitchen is a long, narrow room with the building’s filtering systems as well as several small tanks containing hundreds of fish in quarantine. Some of the animals are there for medical reasons (illness, injury, pregnancy), some are there to get them acclimated before they can be moved to one of the exhibits, and some are there because they’re getting ready to be sent out to other institutions.

In fact, Mr. Bromwell says, there are “twice as many fish behind the scenes as in front.”

One concrete tank is marked “Beware of flounder.” Mr. Bromwell says the flounders in that tank are a little overzealous about their feeding. In fact, he says, if they feel aggressive enough, they are capable of jumping right out of the tank.

• The behind-the-scenes feeding tour ends back at the “shark lab,” an interactive classroom next to the home base classroom. Ms. Meekes takes over the tour.

“See this rope?” she asks, pointing to a long piece of rope on the floor just outside the room. “This shows the lengths of various kinds of sharks,” she says. The range is considerable, from the 6-inch cigar shark to the 46-foot whale shark.

A long table in the lab holds specimens of shark egg cases, jaws, teeth and skin; visitors are encouraged to touch them. The shark skin is surprisingly rough, especially when stroked against the grain. Ms. Meekes says it was common at one time to use it for sandpaper.

Other tables contain small pictures of many different types of sharks and the “saw” from a sawfish, information on shark conservation, and information about threats to sharks from humans. Two cutout silhouettes compare the outline of a person on a surfboard to a seal as a shark might view them from underneath. The resemblance is close.

A small display of products made from sharks includes some things one might expect to see, like a can of shark fin soup, and some completely unexpected things, like a tube of Preparation H.

“Yes, it’s made from shark oil,” Ms. Meekes says.

Another table holds the makings of a shark tooth necklace — a small container of sand full of teeth of all shapes and sizes, blue plastic clay and cord. Once the necklaces are made — primarily by the children — they will be left to dry overnight.

Then comes what Ms. Meekes calls “the fun part”:

“We get to tour the aquarium without any other people around.”

• • •

Seeing the aquarium at night isn’t quite the same as being there during normal visiting hours. Escalators and motorized ramps are turned off; the large rain forest exhibit at the top of the building can’t be reached; and a tank containing various sea birds such as puffins is curtained off.

But without the daytime crowds, the place is so quiet one can actually hear the occasional slapping of a ray’s fins when it swims to the surface. And visiting groups can take their time.

• From the ray tray, sleepover guests will gradually work their way up the building, starting with a series of small exhibits showing various ecosystems, labeled “Maryland: Mountains to the Seas,” “North Atlantic to the Pacific” and “Rain Forest to the Sea,” a temporary exhibit devoted to seahorses, and an Amazon rain forest in miniature.

The variety of creatures in these exhibits ranges from an octopus to electric eels to small, brilliantly colored tropical fish to sea urchins with their multicolored tentacles swaying like hair in the water.

• The exhibit called “Seahorses: Beyond Imagination” includes everything from dwarf seahorses only about an inch long to the large and very unreal-looking Leafy Seadragons, which seem a cross between plant and animal with their green, leaf-shaped protuberances.

The orange and white clownfish in several of the tanks may look familiar: A clownfish is the star of the animated movie “Finding Nemo” — a film the aquarium’s entire marketing department made a special field trip to see.

• The Amazon rain forest exhibit also contains its share of intriguing creatures, from small alligators to a black-and-white polka dot stingray. Several tiny marmosets (the world’s smallest known monkey) and tropical birds also live here, but they make themselves scarce.

• Finally, visitors will come to the top of a long, elliptical-shaped walkway going down through a section labeled “Atlantic Coral Reef.” The walkway is decorated with silhouettes of various kinds of sharks, all life-size, seemingly in the middle of a large tank in which small tropical fish and sharks are swimming and a southern stingray has almost totally buried itself in the sand.

The lower one goes, the dimmer the light becomes. At the bottom, where a group of windows look directly into the ray tray, is the sleeping area. After a snack and a video called “The Secret World of Sharks,” visitors may spread their sleeping bags out on the carpet before the tank windows until lights out.

A breakfast of cereal, bagels, fruit, muffins and yogurt will come soon enough the next morning at 7, followed by a test of sorts and a chance to pet a young bamboo shark that may or may not be willing.

But at the end of the evening, what catches the imagination is the ray tray. A visitor gazes, mesmerized, as sting rays, small sharks, tarpon and Calypso the green sea turtle loll in slow motion. It’s the bottom of the walkway, the close of the day, the constriction of the world. And the only visible light is the pale greenish glow from the tank.

WHAT: Shark Quest

WHERE: National Aquarium in Baltimore, 501 East Pratt St., Pier 3 at the Inner Harbor

WHEN: 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday-Thursday, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday, Saturday during July and August only.

TICKETS: Adults $17.50; adults over 60 $14.50; children 3-11 $9.50; children under 3 free.

INFORMATION: 410/576-3800 or 410/727-FISH, www.aqua.org

WHAT: Sleepover with the Sharks

WHERE: National Aquarium in Baltimore, 501 East Pratt St., Pier 3 at the Inner Harbor

WHEN: July 17, 20, 21, 27, 31; Aug. 3, 4, 7, 10, 11, 14, 17, 18, 21

TICKETS: Adults $69; adults over 60 $65; children 8-11 $59; group (maximum 35 tickets) $2,300. Space limited. All tickets in advance, by credit card. Tickets for reservations made less than seven days in advance are non-refundable and non-transferable.

SPECIAL REQUIREMENTS: All guest bring their own sleeping bags. No one under 8 admitted. Paid adult must accompany all children. Waiver must be signed by all participants and a parent or guardian of children.

INFORMATION: 410/576-3833 Monday-Friday 9 a.m.-4:30 p.m., www.aqua.org

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