Shark Summer: Birch Aquarium in La Jolla launches ElasmoBeach Reef
By Lynne Friedmann
Editor’s note: This is the first report in a four-part series that will appear during July and August on exhibits, public programs, lectures and scientific research in connection with Shark Summer at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps.
This time of year, La Jolla Shores beckons with its soft sand, clean water and gentle waves. It also heralds an astonishing annual gathering of equally gentle leopard sharks. They began arriving in June. Thousands of them are there now in the shallow, calm offshore waters foraging for small fish, crustaceans and invertebrates that they vacuum up in their small mouths and swallow whole. Yes, they are sharks. No, they won’t bite you.
The most common way to view leopard sharks in the wild is either kayaking or snorkeling. Don’t care to get wet? Come explore ElasmoBeach Reef – a new, permanent exhibit featuring sharks, rays and other marine life that make their home in local waters – opening at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps on July 4.
“We get to show animals from our ‘back yard,’ ” said Fernando Nosratpour, acting curator, Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.
Sharks, rays and skates are collectively known as elasmobranches (meaning “strap gill”) a subclass of cartilaginous fish whose bodies are supported by skeletons consisting of cartilage – a flexible, connective tissue not as hard and rigid as bone but stiffer and less flexible than muscle.
ElasmoBeach Reef occupies the Shark Reef tank located in the aquarium’s Smargon Courtyard. For a decade, that tank housed a coral reef environment featuring warm-water sharks. The previous coral reef inhabitants are now in new homes at other aquaria, according to Nosratpour.
The new exhibit includes leopard sharks, bat rays, shovelnose guitarfish and smooth-hound sharks together with California halibut, spot-fin croakers, yellow-fin croakers and other sandy-bottom inhabitants. These are captive-raised specimens already in the Birch Aquarium collection.
Turning the existing 13,000-gallon tank into a new habitat required removing rocks and other reef elements to make the exhibit as obstruction-free as possible with smooth walls and a sandy bottom. It was also necessary to cool down the water in the tank from a tropical 76°F to a bracing 68°F to mimic local offshore conditions. An important unseen element in the exhibit is beneficial bacteria that aid the water filtration system.
“Lowering the water temperature was done gradually,” said Nosratpour. “So bacteria could get used to the cooler water.”
The animals were then added a few at a time over several days in order to help them adjust to their new surroundings. Careful attention was given to balance the gender ratio and size of animals.
The most conspicuous and abundant animals in the tank are leopard sharks that derive their name from their distinctive dark brown spotting pattern. Found only along the Pacific Coast from Oregon to the Gulf of California in Mexico, leopard sharks can grow up to 5 feet in length and tip the scales at around 20 pounds. Males become sexually mature between 7 to 13 years old; females between 10 to 15 years old. They can live up to 30 years.
Aquarium staff keep a log of each animal, noting its length, weight, eating habits and health. Fortunately, leopard shark spots are unique, so telling one shark from another is relatively easy. Their markings appear at birth and vary by size, number and shape with some markings looking like scribbles. “This makes life easier,” said Nosratpour.
The opening of ElasmoBeach Reef marks the kick-off of Shark Summer at the aquarium; a two-month long festival of events now through Aug. 24 (see sidebar). Previously, the aquarium sponsored popular Shark Discovery Days or Shark Week programs each summer.
“It is expanded this year, emphasizing local sharks and shark conservation,” said Nigella Hillgarth, executive director of the Birch Aquarium.
Shark Summer Ongoing and Special Events
Birch Aquarium at Scripps invites the public to discover why sharks are critical to the ocean’s health – and why the area off La Jolla Shores is so important to them – through activities, classes, and special events at the aquarium and excursions in local waters. Highlights include:
Shark Floor Activities
Weekdays: 10 a.m.–4 p.m.
ElasmoReef Feeding Times
Tues., Thurs., and Sat. at 10:30 a.m.
Shark Encounter Talks
Tues. and Thurs. 1:30 p.m.; Sat. and Sun. 11:30 a.m.
Shark Conservation: Safeguarding the Future of Our Ocean
Science Lecture: Monday, July 8; 6:30-8 p.m.
Shark and Wildlife Kayak Adventure
July 13, 20 and 28; August 4, 10 and 18: 8-10:30 a.m.
Snorkel with the Leopard Sharks
July 14, 21 and 27; August 3, 17 and 24: 8-10 a.m.
Summer Camp: Shark Encounters
For grades 4-6: July 15-19, July 22-26 and Aug. 19-23
Saturday, July 20: 11 a.m.-3 p.m.
Manta Rays: Majestic & Threatened Icons
Science Lecture: Monday, Aug. 5; 6:30-8 p.m.
*** For a list of day-by-day shark activities, fees, and to register for events visit aquarium.ucsd.edu
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