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Las Vegas aquariums bring the sea to the desert

Special to The Los Angeles Times

Having just completed a college course in oceanography, Liz Hunt may know more about fish than most of us.

"I know how to tell a boy shark from a girl shark," the San Diego woman says proudly as dozens of sharks swim just a few feet from where she is also swimming -- in a hotel pool in downtown Las Vegas.

Five species of sharks -- differences in their pelvic fins indicate their sex -- are inside a 200,000-gallon saltwater tank that is encircled by the freshwater pool, the one occupied by Hunt and her fellow humans at the Golden Nugget.

For visitors wanting fish with their chips, the Nugget is one of four Vegas resorts with large aquariums. The first -- behind the check-in desk at the Mirage -- opened nearly 20 years ago. Now, experts say, this gambling mecca in the desert boasts one of the largest concentrations of marine life anywhere outside an ocean.

The granddaddy of 'em all is Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay, where the largest enclosure holds 1.3 million gallons of water. The several aquariums are managed by curator Jack Jewell, who got his first fish tank when he was a young boy. That tank held a whopping 10 gallons of water.

"I was quickly fascinated by fish in every single respect," Jewell says.

A career selling tropical fish led him to the Las Vegas Strip. Jewell now oversees the care of more than 2,000 varieties of fish. But it's those fearsome creatures with the razor-sharp teeth that draw the crowds -- more than 1 million people a year. "They come to see the sharks. It's all about that," the curator says. "People continue to be endlessly fascinated by the mystique, their instinctive fear of the unknown and of the powerful animal that the shark portrays."

Sea turtles, jellyfish and a well-camouflaged octopus are among other popular attractions at the facility, the only one in Nevada accredited by the Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums. Children in particular are fascinated by the touch pool, where sting rays and sharks contentedly swim in shallow water. "Just use one finger to touch them," an employee tells a group of first-graders.

Upon entering, guests are given an audio wand that allows them to learn about the various displays as they pass by. The devices -- which provide narration in English, Spanish and Japanese -- are part of the aquarium's educational mission.

"The way that you educate people is that you inspire them. You inspire people through the 'ooh-aah' side of things," Jewell says. "We see something that's beautiful and captivating, we have an emotional attachment to it, and that emotional attachment then leads us to want to learn more about it and to protect it."

A few miles south of Las Vegas, along Interstate 15, it's the marine biologists who educate visitors at the Silverton Casino Lodge aquarium. Three times a day, the experts share their knowledge from inside the resort's 117,000-gallon tank, while feeding the sharks and sting rays. Underwater speakers and a special breathing mask fitted with a microphone enable the divers to interact with the guests, who watch from the other side of a 6-inch-thick window -- which at 12 feet high and 25 feet wide is one of the largest acrylic viewing windows in the world.

"The most common question is, 'Are you going to get stung, like what happened to Steve Irwin?' " says aquarium manager Thomas Harder. "It's really nice to educate people about the truths of sting rays. They aren't dangerous animals. People don't often get stung, and when they do, it's very rarely fatal. . . . You have a better chance of winning the lottery and getting hit by an airplane in the same day."

Harder also assures his guests that he's in no danger from the sharks because they're not the species that have attacked humans.

"You don't really have that large teeth [and] big mouth coming at you," he says.

A boy who's watching intently while Harder hand-feeds the animals asks, "What are you feeding them?"

"We have mahi-mahi, shrimp, scallops, various types of fish fillets," Harder replies. Apparently, it's nothing but the best for the Silverton's fish.

"All of it is restaurant-quality food," Harder says of the seafood he buys from the same wholesalers that supply the finest hotels in town. "We do not feed leftovers or scraps from the buffet.

"You have an investment out there that you want to protect. You don't want to feed poor quality food to those animals."

At the Golden Nugget, viewing the fish -- and even swimming with them -- is a welcome diversion from the casinos for David Metzger of San Diego.

"Everything's now focused on the gambling and the ostentatious architecture," Metzger says. "I much prefer the giant aquarium.

"We're all stoked to go shooting [down] the water slide through the aquarium," Metzger says of another feature of the Nugget's pool. "That's next."

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