- Associated Press - Sunday, May 10, 2015

CHARLESTON, S.C. (AP) - The largest exhibit added to the South Carolina Aquarium since it opened 15 years ago allows visitors to come face-to-face, and finger-to-fin, with sharks and stingrays.

Shark Shallows, which opens this weekend, is a 20,000-gallon outdoor saltwater tank on a terrace of the aquarium that offers a look at both sharks and stingrays as well as views of the nearby Cooper River.

On one side of the figure-eight shaped tank, the sea creatures glide past visitors who can reach out and touch them. It’s a bit counterintuitive to want to touch sharks and stingrays, which many people consider dangerous, but the idea is to both engage and educate visitors.

“There’s a real mystique about sharks,” said Kevin Mills, the president and CEO of the aquarium which opened in 2000. “But we want to make sure people appreciate them and their importance in the wild and not just the way they are popularized through popular media.”

Sharks are at the top of the ocean food chain in the ocean but are subject to overfishing. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums estimates more than 100 million are killed each year by humans and despite many people’s fears, shark attacks on people are rare.



Shark Shallows has four bonnethead sharks - members of the hammerhead family - as well as 28 cownose stingrays and tree southern stingrays. All are species found in the ocean off South Carolina.

“We selected a non-aggressive species like the bonnethead,” said Jen Skoy, the aquarist for the exhibit. “Their mouth is located on their underside and people are touching them on their back so the probability of someone having a poor interaction is very small.”

Both species of stingray attack only if they are protecting themselves and the venomous barbs on those in the exhibit have been clipped, like one might clip a fingernail. When they grow back they are clipped again.

The tank has a deeper side away from visitors where the creatures can swim if they don’t want to be touched, Skoy said.

The heated tank is kept at 80 degrees which is nice during the winter when the ocean water off Charleston can drop to 50 degrees. But heating the water is more for health reasons because the higher temperature prevents bacterial and fungal diseases in the water.

Jon Zucker, the chairman of the aquarium board, said the next major addition planned at the aquarium is to make its sea turtle hospital more accessible for visitors. He said that will likely be done in the next two years or so.

“We’ve had our sea turtle hospital since the inception of the aquarium and we want to make that much more public so people can see what we do to rescue and rehabilitate sea turtles,” he said.

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Online

South Carolina Aquarium: https://scaquarium.org/

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