When I was in Hawaii last January, I had booked a circle island tour that was supposed to go to the famous “Turtle Beach” on Oahu, but it didn’t. I was a bit disappointed by this, since I’ve developed something of a sea turtle obsession. I blame this on Crush, the surfer dude sea turtle in Finding Nemo, and on Hawaii itself.
On my first trip to the island, a local tour guide told us that the Hawaiian name for sea turtle is “honu” (pronounced “hoe” + “new”). He told a corny joke about them: “What would happen if you found a world that had nothing but sea turtles? It would be a honu world.” I groaned at the joke, but at the same time, I just loved the word “honu”. It’s so much sweeter than “sea turtle”.
So after my disappointment at not seeing sea turtles in Hawaii, I was very excited to read online that Mandalay Bay had developed some new behind-the-scenes tours at the Shark Reef–including one where you get to feed their sea turtles! I booked it on their website and it was one of the things I was most looking forward to on my trip. On the day of the tour, I went to the Shark Reef box office as instructed in my confirmation email.
There were three of us total on the tour–a couple from the UK and me. Our guide, Greg, met us promptly at 12:45 just outside the box office. He led us into the “behind-the-scenes” staff-only area of the Shark Reef. There’s something so cool about being taken into the “backside” of an operation in Las Vegas. It’s like you’re being shown the magician’s tricks.
Along the way to the kitchen, Greg showed us photos of various sharks on the walls and told us about them in some detail. The one that really sticks in my mind after all this time is the bull shark, which I had not heard of before (unlike Great Whites and hammerheads). Bull sharks, as it turns out, have more testosterone than any other creature on the planet (including a teenage boy or a WWF wrestler). So needless to say, they’re very aggressive.
They can swim into water that is very shallow and have been known to swim into fresh water rivers–like the Potomac and the Mississippi! Yikes. That was definitely news to me. So now basically I’m starting to think the only safe place to swim is in a swimming pool.
Our first stop on the tour was the kitchen, where we picked up lunch for the turtles. Today, it was a bucket full of romaine lettuce and green bell peppers, along with some veggie nutrient bars. The Shark Reef has an aquarium nutritionist who determines what the various species living in the shark reef require for nutrients and food on a daily basis and prepares it for the feeders. (I wish someone would do that for me!)
On our way to the turtle tank, Greg showed us how the filtration system keeps the aquarium clean and noted that divers also go in regularly to clean. Someone is monitoring the aquarium 24/7 to make sure everything is as it should be, the ph is balanced, etc. Before we entered the catwalk area above the aquarium, we were given aprons to put on over our clothes (to protect them) and Greg showed us a bin where we could store our bags. We were allowed to bring our cameras with us into the feeding area.
(I’m a little disappointed that my photos didn’t turn out better; I suck at taking photos of things in motion, which the turtles were constantly. I put my camera on the sports setting to compensate for that, but it didn’t help. The distortion from the water made a huge difference, too.)
Then we entered the Shark Reef’s inner sanctum. Above the aquarium are an interconnecting series of catwalks for human staff to interact with the sea life below. When it’s time for a particular species to be fed, they are brought to their own special section, separate from the others. They all have different feeding times. (Think about it: If they all rushed to the same spot at the same time to be fed, it would be pandemonium. Some species might view other species as their lunch. It could get ugly.)
I asked Greg if the turtles have a sense when it’s time for them to be fed, the way cats do. He said he thinks they do, in a way, but that it has more to do with visual cues, like raising the lighting, that lets them know it’s time to eat.
Seeing the three sea turtles in the holding pen waiting for us to feed them filled me with joy. It was kind of how most of us feel when we see a litter of puppies or kittens. I recognized one of the turtles right away because of the adhesive strip on his shell. “Is that O.D.?” I asked.
Greg looked at me in surprise. “Yes, it is. You know about O.D.?”
I told him yes, that I’d read about him in the paper. O.D. was brought to the Shark Reef for rehabilitation after being rescued in the Florida Keys. He had a collapsed lung. This made him off-balance, so he couldn’t swim properly any more, and it became obvious he wouldn’t survive on his own for long in the ocean. The Shark Reef offered to take him and he was flown to Las Vegas.
Greg explained that they’ve applied weights in the adhesive on OD’s shell to balance him out, and now he can swim normally. I didn’t get the names of the two other turtles. One was older than OD (who is around 50), and one younger. Greg told us sea turtles can live to be over 100 years old.
The sea turtles knew it was lunch time, and they were ready. Greg showed us how to break up the lettuce into just the right size so the turtles could eat it. The peppers were already cut up to the right size. We started tossing vegetables in at a steady pace and watched the turtles swimming around, scooping it up and nibbling on it. Occasionally two turtles would go for the same piece, but they never really fought over them. There was plenty to go around.
There were two nurse sharks in the pen with the turtles, but they weren’t interested in either the turtles or the vegetables. In fact, they didn’t do anything except hover at the bottom of the tank. These particular sharks are harmless to turtles. In fact, most sharks are. Greg noted that the only shark the sea turtle has to worry about is tiger sharks; they have teeth that can saw right through the turtle’s shell. But Greg told us turtles can swim very fast when they need to, even though they usually seem very slow in aquariums.
We also watched the sawtooth sharks get fed and some species whose name I didn’t catch. The guy feeding it had to sneak the food under its face from the side, because its face was pressed right up against a wall all the time. It was freaky.
They use long poles with grabbers on the end to feed many species. That is also how we fed the turtles their veggie bars. Greg told us the Shark Reef goes through 500 pounds of food per week (for the whole aquarium). 350 pounds is protein-based for the carnivores and the rest is vegetables (lettuce, peppers, broccoli, etc.) for the vegetarians (like the turtles).
And that concluded lunch time for the turtles. During the tour, a member of the staff shot souvenir photos of us in those unflattering aprons, and after we picked them up and thanked Greg for his time, we were free to tour the public side of the Shark Reef on our own.
Did I think it was worth it? You bet! Being able to see the sea turtles up close and feed them lunch was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in Las Vegas (or anywhere else), and it made me very, very happy.
Things To Know:
Location: Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay
Cost: $70 (includes admission to the sea turtle feed and to the Shark Reef, which you can explore after the sea turtle feed; and 4 souvenir photos of you feeding the turtles)
Footwear: wear close-toed shoes with good, no-slip soles (like sneakers)
Photography is allowed
Bags (purses, backpacks) should be placed in the storage bin so they don’t accidentally fall into the tank.