It’s time for one of the world’s most misunderstood animals to come out of the shadows.
“Ocean Wonders: Sharks!” — a new exhibit at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Aquarium in Coney Island — shines a light on these majestic creatures with a sweeping narrative that aims to replace any fear of them with awe.
The $158 million exhibit, which opens June 30, includes nine galleries, 115 marine species and 18 different kinds of sharks and rays in tanks that allow them to both glide above the heads of visitors and meet them at eye level.
And the new 57,500-square-foot building that houses “Ocean Wonders: Sharks!” is a spectacle all its own. Wrapped in a “shimmer wall” — a flowing work of art comprised of 33,000 small aluminum flaps — the structure includes a rooftop classroom and deck with a sweeping view of the Coney Island boardwalk and the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s a stunning comeback moment for the aquarium, which was severely damaged by superstorm Sandy and suffered delays for the long-planned project.
“This building is dedicated to the idea that we need to understand, conserve and value sharks,” said Jon Forrest Dohlin, director of the aquarium and a vice president at the Wildlife Conservation Society. “And we also need to understand, be aware and connect it to the wildlife in the waters around New York.”
Children (and ambitious adults) can immerse themselves in the colorful, aquatic experience by crawling through a transparent tunnel inside one of the tanks.
Watching sharks, rays and a sea turtle gracefully navigate the tank representing the massive Hudson Canyon’s Edge sets a peaceful, even meditative, scene.
“I think people come in with a very singular idea of sharks and it’s usually pretty fierce: It’s a predator that is going to eat me,” said Dohlin. “That’s just not the story about sharks . . . they are a diverse, ancient and fascinating group of animals that is under tremendous pressure right now.”
Overfishing, pollution and other man-made problems are the biggest threats to sharks, which play a key role in keeping ecosystems healthy.
Visitors are also likely to be surprised by the diversity of marine life in the waters that surround New York. Sand tiger sharks, harbor seals, lined sea horses, cownose rays and even whales are among the animals that can be found in the New York Bight, which runs from the tip of Long Island at Montauk to Cape May in New Jersey.
“We don’t think of ourselves as a maritime city, like Seattle and San Francisco, but we are,” said Dohlin.
As visitors enter the exhibit, they are serenaded by the sounds of the sea before stepping into a mesmerizing coral reef tunnel packed with colorful tangs and angel fish along with zebra sharks and other species. It’s a perfectly planned “wow” moment, Dohlin said, and one meant to drive home the message that sharks are vital to some of the marine habitats we love the most.
Mobiles and hands-on displays emphasize the need for a balanced ecosystem. And you can even safely stick your hand into a shark’s mouth — or at least a child-friendly model — to check out different types of teeth.
Interactive displays explain how rarely sharks reproduce and when they do it’s in small numbers.
“Ocean Wonders: Sharks!” doesn’t shy away from the ugly reality of overfishing. A graphic video shows how sharks are fished for their fins and then cruelly dumped back into the water where they sink to the bottom and drown.
“It’s a terrible thing,” Dohlin said. “It’s not just the waste but the inhumanity. Living animals are tossed back into the water to die.”
The New York Bight tank highlights the marine life found close to the city’s shores while another gallery allows visitors to experience a walk-through of a shipwreck — important habitats for marine life.
The last room in the exhibit is packed with information and hands-on activities about how to conserve the environment by recycling, cutting down on single-use plastics and consuming sustainable seafood.
Dohlin said he is especially proud of the rooftop classroom.
“This is the most impressive piece of real estate in the entire building,” he said. “It’s dedicated to classroom space because that’s paramount for us.”