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San Clemente Journal

Shark Tank - New Feature at Ocean Institute

Mar 17, 2020 11:14AM ● By Donia Moore

Jessica Brasher, Husbandry Manager, is very excited about the new exhibit.

by Donia Moore

Have you ever touched a live shark? Ocean Institute visitors will get an opportunity to do just that with the opening of the Ocean Institute’s new Shark Tank. Fully funded by a donation of one million dollars by the Sahm Family Foundation, based in Rancho Santa Fe, the exhibit will be opening in early 2020 on the Institute’s Dana Point campus, and will include a horn shark nursery, touch tank and shark artifacts. 

The new horn shark exhibit coincides with a $330 million renovation of the 47-year-old Dana Point Harbor by a Newport Beach-based development group. The Ocean Institute is among the harbor’s largest attractions and the exhibit is expected to become a visitor destination as the harbor is revitalized.

Education for Fear-Free Shark Exploration
 “The innocuous horn shark is the perfect character to begin a fear-free exploration – setting the conditions for further study with more menacing characters,” says Dr. Wendy Marshall of the Ocean Institute, one of the leaders of the new education program. “Shark sightings clearly evoke fear in beach-goers. Research and education are needed to understand sharks, their behaviors, risks and realities. The first step in developing the next generation of researchers and innovators who may develop better ways to understand behaviors or create deterrents, is by developing an interest to know more.”

Care and Feeding at the Ocean Institute
Jessica Brasher, Husbandry Manager at the Ocean Institute, is very excited about the new exhibit.

“In the wild, horn sharks often live 12 to 15 years. It is expected that in captivity they may have even longer life spans. The design of our exhibit is carefully planned out so that the horn sharks have an uninterrupted swimming pattern. Our new tank is designed with room for the sedentary sharks to swim in a figure-8 loop around the tank, while providing many spots for them to spend time along the bottom as they prefer.”

Water temperature is also critical. “They have a fairly hearty temperature tolerance ranging from the mid 50’s all the way through the high 70’s. We plan to keep our tank close to 62 degrees as the majority of our system is one large continuous loop. Most of our tanks share one common filtration and chiller system. 

“Horn sharks are carnivorous sea creatures. They mainly feed on sea urchins, so may have stained purple teeth. They also sporadically feed on mollusks, crustaceans, and gastropods, crabs, shrimp, squids, polychaetes, small clams, sea anemones, and starfishes in the wild. At the Ocean Institute exhibit, they will be fed smaller portions three times per week to keep them happy and satiated.”

CSULB Shark Lab 
“We were fortunate to have a lot of help and support from experts such as marine biology professor Dr. Chris Lowe and the Shark Lab project,” notes Jessica. As director of the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), Dr. Lowe studies the movement, behavior and physiology of sharks, rays and gamefish. “Other experts from aquarium and educational facilities also offered advice and guidance gleaned from their experiences.”

Female horn sharks have a very distinctive way of laying their eggs in spiral egg cases, often called Mermaids’ Purses, which they wedge into crevices. It is fascinating to watch the eggs turn into fish through the semi transparent walls of the pouch.

Horn sharks mate during the months of December and January and the females start releasing their eggs just a few weeks after mating. The breeding season is generally between the months of February and April, during which the females lay two eggs every 11 to 14 days. Generally 24 eggs are released by a single female in a season. The eggs usually hatch in seven to nine months.

 These nocturnal sea creatures forage at night and display a comatose behavior during the day.  While their natural range is the coastal waters off the western coast of North America, from California to the Gulf of California, horn sharks can also inhabit the warm, subtropical waters of the Eastern Pacific. They prefer water with temperatures above 68°F (20°C). In contrast to other small sharks, they prefer to stay in the depths of oceans, and so fall into the category of 'benthic' sharks. In normal sea water, they stay at depths of 25 to 40 feet from the sea level, while in the inter-tidal zone they go down to a depth of 656 feet. In winter, they prefer to stay at least below 98 feet from the sea level to keep their bodies warm. Adolescent sharks have been observed to stay at depths in the range of 131 to 492 feet from the sea level. 

Brown in color with black spots all over their body, they resemble a swimming chocolate chip cookie to some of the Ocean Institute’s younger guests. Adults can reach up to a length of four feet and weigh up to 10 kg. Adolescents have been recorded up to a length ranging between one to 1.6 feet. They have spines in their first and second dorsal fins. They also have five gills. More than one type of tooth is present in their dentition; small teeth in the front and crushing molars behind them. This is the primary reason for their genus name; Heterodontus, which is derived from the two Latin words, heteros meaning different and odont meaning teeth. 

Relationship with Humans
Horn sharks are shy, non-aggressive creatures. While divers often report coming across them during night diving, the animals seldom react to their presence. They stay inert and do not pose a threat unless they are harassed. However, it is always advisable for divers to stay cautious, especially around their dorsal spines. 

It has been difficult to gather a great deal of information on horn sharks due to the fact that they are not widely dispersed in the world’s oceans. They are presently listed as "Data Deficient" by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Though they are not among those species that are hunted primarily for food, they are often caught as by-catch in fishing expeditions. The current need of researchers is to initiate an in-depth study to safeguard them from extinction.

The Ocean Institute hopes to contribute to the knowledge of this animal’s life cycle with the help of the new shark exhibit. More than 100,000 people visit the institute annually. The harbor has about two million visitors a year. Since the ocean is our classroom, the Ocean Institute hopes to further educate visitors about our benthic neighbors and maybe reduce the fear factor when someone shouts “Shark!” 24200 Harbor Drive Dana Point, CA. 92629 (949)496-2274.