When you first step inside the New York Aquarium’s new shark exhibit, Ocean Wonders: Sharks!, the only thing separating you from the toothy predators is about six inches of acrylic. The exhibit walls arch overhead, fully immersing you in an underwater world of zebra sharks and black-tipped reef sharks gliding amongst colorful coral.
Situated right off Coney Island’s famous boardwalk, the exhibit is housed in a nautilus shell-shaped building clad with a “shimmer wall” made of rippling aluminum tiles that resemble schools of fish. Inside, the exhibit features nine galleries teeming with marine life. Large tanks with grandiose displays host more than 115 marine species, including stingrays and sea turtles. The dozen shark species are the centerpieces of the aquarium, though. Many of them, including sand tigers, sandbar, and nurse sharks are native to East Coast waters.
Jon Forrest Dohlin, director of the New York Aquarium, hopes the exhibit can help visitors become more aware of the crucial role these creatures play in the world’s ocean—including right in their own backyards.
“This wildlife exists paradoxically surrounded by 20 million people,” Dohlin told Earther. “They’re ecologically so important to the health and habitats all over the globe and they need our help.”
The new exhibit—which took four years to build—debunks myths about the dangers sharks pose and teaching aquarium-goers about the crucial role these creatures play in ocean food chains. Visitors also learn about shark habitats, different stages of shark development, and can even get hands-on with the toothy creature’s chompers in an interactive display. Visitors can reach out and touch models of different kinds of shark teeth—not all sharks wield serrated cutting teeth—without fear of getting bitten.
By the end of the exhibit, aquarium visitors are reminded of the many severe threats sharks face. One hundred million sharks are killed every year around the world due to shark fin demand, long-line fishing, and net entanglement, according to Dohlin. A number of these sharks threats are bycatch, casualties of fishermen seeking other species. The exhibit urges visitors to make small changes, such as recycling and consuming sustainable seafood, in order to protect sharks and other diverse marine life.
“To lose 100 million of these animals is a catastrophic conservation challenge we really have to rise to collectively all over the world,” Dohlin said.
The $158 million exhibit is a huge milestone in the aquarium’s recovery after Hurricane Sandy ravaged it in 2012. The shark exhibit was set to break ground just days before the superstorm hit, flooding aquarium exhibits and offices. The exhibit’s opening was put on hold. New safety precautions like flood doors were put in place in order to protect aquarium animals from any future natural disasters.
Almost six years after Hurricane Sandy, recovery work continues on the rest of the Aquarium’s 14-acre campus, more than half of which remains closed. But as of June 30, you can visit Ocean Wonders: Sharks! year-round.