Shark Shallows offers visitors to the popular Charleston, South Carolina, attraction the opportunity to see the gentler, kinder side of the ocean's much-maligned predator.
Designed with safety in mind, the innovative exhibit features a 20,000-gallon touch tank containing four bonnethead sharks, relatively docile creatures and members of the smallest species of the hammerhead family. Easily recognized by their flat, shovel-shaped heads, the sharks can reach five feet in length, but average a modest three feet.
Guests are invited to touch the sharks on their backs, avoiding contact with the animal's mouth, which is located on the underside of the body. The sharks are never fed by hand, so they don't associate fingers with food.
Even in the wild, shark attacks are extremely rare. But Hollywood and media hype have created a PR problem for the apex predators. The innovative exhibit is meant to dispel the shark's bad-boy image and help earn the fish its due respect.
"By allowing people to touch the creatures, we're showing them that they are not dangerous," said Jonathan Zucker, chairman of the South Carolina Aquarium Board of Directors. "It's inspiring to see the faces of kids light up in excitement when they make contact with a shark."
Along with the bonnetheads, the interactive exhibit features 30 cownose and southern stingrays. The rays have had their barbs clipped to ensure the safety of visitors.
The most significant enhancement to the marine attraction since it opened in 2000, Shark Shallows is located under a shaded structure on the aquarium's Riverside Terrace overlooking Charleston Harbor. It's not unusual for visitors to get a free wildlife show courtesy of bottlenose dolphins playing in the waters below.
At the shallow end of the exhibit, the tank is three feet deep, allowing visitors to reach into the water and feel the animals' smooth skin. An observation window offers guests an underwater view of the sharks and rays.
The deep end of the tank features an even bigger viewing window, where guests can watch the marine life swimming uninterrupted.
Aquarium experts present daily shows at the outdoor exhibit, educating visitors about sharks and the important role they play in helping to balance ecosystems in the world's oceans. The information is meant to encourage guests to advocate for the conservation of sharks in the wild.
"Human beings are responsible for killing more than 100 million sharks a year," Zucker said. "At that rate, we could see the extinction of some shark species in the next century."
Shark Shallows is included with general admission to the South Carolina Aquarium. For more information on the exhibit, click here. To learn more about aquariums and museums in South Carolina, visit DiscoverSouthCarolina.com/museums-and-arts.