LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — An aquarium in the desert seems a bit far-fetched, that is, until you visit the Shark Reef Aquarium at the Mandalay Bay resort.
"The Shark Reef Aquarium is a predator-based aquarium where we exhibit those animals who are considered predators in their natural environment. We also like to inform visitors why these animals are important and why they need to be protected," said Adrienne Rowland, director of Shark Reef Aquarium operations.
In a town known for its card sharks, it makes sense the only predator-based aquarium in North America calls Las Vegas home.
"We opened in June 2000 to not only bring that predator story but to bring marine environmental conservation to the desert," Rowland said.
And don't let the name fool you, as the exhibit is home to more than just sharks. About 2,000 aquatic animals call the exhibit home.
"You start in our rain forest jungle. You are going to see crocodiles, Kamodo dragons and reptiles," Rowland said.
The beginning of the experience features a thriving jungle where visitors can see those crocodiles, Komodo dragons and piranhas up close and personal.
"We have live plants under a giant skylight. Some of the palms are literally 30-feet high. Therefore, the reptiles in here get a natural light-type environment," Rowland said.
The walking exhibit then leads visitors to the marine area, where you'll see catfish, sea turtles and stingrays.
"We call the marine area the temple where several animals have taken over, which provides a great transition story that leads guests to the bottom of the ocean in the shipwreck exhibit," Rowland said.
And the stars of the show are, of course, the sharks and the aquarium takes you to the depths of the deep blue sea.
"The tour ends with a 1.3 million gallon shipwreck exhibit which features larger sharks such as sand tigers, sandbars, sawfish and sea turtles with a really immersive environment, and you feel like you are in the middle of the ocean," Rowland said.
The aquarium not only brings the world's predators to us, but it also helps educate us through its in-person exhibits.
"We have educated over 300,000 local school kids on the importance of marine conservation. And our touch pool is a fan favorite. You get to interact with animals who are normally really far removed from our environment, and you get to see how they behave with an up-close personal connection," Rowland said.
And even the water creatures are getting into the Halloween spirit -- as the aquarium transforms itself into a haunted tropical reef called the "Hallow Reef" for Halloween.
"We decorate for the kids, and it's spooky fun, not scary fun. They get to trick or treat and enjoy the decorations," Rowland said.
Rattling chains, creaking doors, and spooky music will replace the usual sounds of the ocean and the jungle.
"We have this spooky man-eating plant in our jungle area, along with witches and divers in the skeleton form around the aquarium," Rowland said.
But not all things will be creepy.
Shark Reef staff will be on hand with treats for children while they travel the spooky hallways in their Halloween costumes.
"Hallow Reef is meant for our local residents as a thank you to our community where we can offer discount admission of $5 for kids," Rowland said.
The Shark Reef is still going strong after 20 years in the desert and remains a must-see underwater adventure in Southern Nevada.
"We want people to appreciate all of this that exists beneath the surface," Rowland said.