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SeaWorld - North End: Shark Encounter

Rating: * * * +
Type: Aquatic habitat
Time: 15 to 20 minutes
Kelly says: Up close and personal with some scary fish

In Shark Encounter, SeaWorld has very cleverly packaged an aquarium-style display of some of the seas’ scariest, ugliest, and most dangerous creatures. The tone and lighting of this exhibit is dark and foreboding, with appropriately ominous soundtrack music, but you needn’t worry about any unpleasant surprises. When you get right down to it, it’s fish in tanks and far too fascinating to be truly scary to any except perhaps the most suggestible kids.

The attraction wraps around Sharks Underwater Grill and, in fact, the restaurant has commandeered what used to be the big attraction — a massive tank brimming with a variety of shark species, with huge picture window viewing areas. You still get a nifty view of the sharks, as we shall see, but something was lost from the attraction when the restaurant was added.

You enter this habitat to the left of the restaurant. A short corridor leads to a clear acrylic tunnel through an artificial tropical reef. This is home to the moray eels — nasty-looking snake-like fish. The moray’s coating of yellow slime over its blue flesh gives it a sickly green tint. At first, all you see are the many varieties of reef fish swimming about, but closer inspection reveals the morays poking their heads out of their holes. The more you look, the more you see. There are dozens and dozens of the creatures hidden in the crevices of the reef. From time to time one swims free, undulating its long body right overhead. Looking up you see the surface of the water. The tank has been designed to mimic the natural habitat as closely as possible; the lighting comes from a single overhead source, standing in for the sun.

The tunnel curves around and into a viewing area in which several tanks hold specimens probably best kept separate. First is the delicate and intricately camouflaged lion fish. Looks are deceiving here, because the lion fish’s feathery appendages are actually poisoned spines that are highly toxic to swimmers unfortunate enough to come in contact with them.

Tried any fugu at your local sushi bar? You may want to reconsider after viewing the puffer fish on display here. Fugu, as the fish is known in Japan, is one of the world’s most poisonous fish. The Japanese consider its edible portions a delicacy, and licensed fugu chefs carefully pare away the poisonous organs. Despite their precautions, several people die each year from fugu poisoning. Swimming unconcernedly with the puffer fish are surgeon fish, a pretty species that carries the marine equivalent of switchblades concealed near the tail. When attacked (or grabbed by unwary fishermen), they lash out with their hidden weapon, inflicting a nasty gash. Across the way are barracuda, looking every bit as terrifying as when I first encountered them while snorkeling in the Caribbean. Had I been to SeaWorld first, I would have known that an attack was unlikely and probably would have made less of a fool of myself.

As you walk down the long tunnel toward the shark encounter that gives the attraction its name, wall displays fill you in on little known shark facts. For example, did you know that a shark’s liver takes up nearly 90% of its body cavity and accounts for nearly a quarter of its weight? Scientists theorize that, since the liver contains a great deal of oil and since oil is lighter than water, the shark’s huge liver may contribute to its buoyancy.

Look for a series of rectangular windows on your right. Here you can get a glimpse of what the lucky diners in the restaurant are seeing. It’s a spectacular sight, even from this somewhat restricted vantage point and it may be enough to make you decide to have lunch there.

At the bottom of the zig-zag tunnel, you reach the attraction’s culmination ­— a slow, stately ride on a conveyer belt through a 124-foot tunnel that takes you right down the middle of the shark tank. About a foot thick, the clear acrylic walls of the tunnel are supporting 450 tons of man-made salt water over your head. Don’t worry, you’re perfectly safe; the acrylic can withstand a tromping by 372 elephants (as you are informed on exiting).

All around and above you swim small sawtooth sharks, brown sharks, nurse sharks, bull sharks, lemon sharks, and sandpiper sharks. There are no giants here but what the specimens lack in size they more than make up for in number. If you ever encounter sharks in the wild, hopefully there will be nowhere near this many of them.

The next stop is the exit and the blinding Florida sunshine. If you overlooked the pool at the entrance to Sharks Underwater Grill when you entered, take a moment to check it out as you leave. Look for the bridge over a shallow pool in which some of the smaller and less threatening shark specimens are displayed. Here are small hammerheads and nurse sharks along with a variety of rays, including the jet-black bat ray.

Tip: You can satisfy your curiosity and get a great view of the restaurant’s shark viewing windows by heading for the bar and having a cool drink. It’s seldom crowded at the bar and often you can walk right in, past families waiting for a table. If you’re hungry, the full menu is served at the bar and at a number of nearby raised tables.

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