$1 million grant will fund creation of live shark exhibit at Ocean Institute
By Erika I. Ritchie, Orange County Register
DANA POINT — Horn sharks may not be as well known as great whites, but a living horn shark exhibit planned for the Ocean Institute will help provide greater understanding of both species — and of all sharks in general.
Wendy Marshall, who leads the Dana Point institute’s education programs, sees the exhibit — funded entirely through a $1 million donation from the Rancho Santa Fe-based Sahm Family Foundation — as an opportunity to flip the conversation about sharks from fear to curiosity.
“The innocuous horn shark is the perfect character to begin a fear-free exploration – setting the conditions for further study with more menacing characters,” Marshall said.
“Shark sightings clearly evoke fear in beach-goers,” she said. “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.”
The Sahm Family donation, which the Ocean Institute announced last week, will fund the exhibit and help with the cost of renovating one of the institute’s buildings to house it. The exhibit will include a horn shark nursery, touch tank and shark artifacts.
Completion is expected by 2020.
a camping-style experience for overnight programs on the institute’s decks. The foundation also has contributed to the institute’s capital fund.
The horn shark exhibit coincides with a $330 million renovation of the 47-year-old Dana Point Harbor by a Newport Beach-based development group to begin in late 2019. 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.
More than 100,000 people visit the institute annually. The harbor has about two million visitors a year.
“The new exhibit will provide an enhanced student and public visitor experience,” said Ocean Institute CEO Dan Pingaro. “As the harbor renovation begins to take place, the Ocean Institute will build upon our relationship with the County of Orange and also continue to develop a collaboration with the harbor redevelopment partnership to help ensure the Institute’s dynamic programs and facility are an educational and public visitor destination for all of Orange County and beyond.”
There now are 1,100 individuals representing 165 marine life species in the Ocean Institute’s living collection. Once the horn shark exhibit is completed, the institute’s exhibit area will have expanded by 20 percent, meaning more hands-on opportunities for visitors.
“For our school programs, characteristics and behaviors of horn sharks provide a motivating springboard into concepts they learn in class, including adaptations and ecosystem balance,” Marshall said. “Sharks are of high interest to Californians.”
In July, the California State Legislature passed a bill that will provide $3.75 million for the Shark Lab in Long Beach for high-tech research and to disseminate information to the public. The Ocean Institute regularly collaborates with Chris Lowe, who runs the Cal State Long Beach center, and officials already have consulted with Lowe on the horn shark exhibit.
Lowe, who has studied horn sharks for eight years, said he considers them great ambassadors for the shark species overall. He calls them a keystone for the study of kelp beds and ocean health. They are easy to capture, he said, and easy to keep in captivity.
Lowe has created tiny monitors he attaches to his horn sharks in tiny backpacks on their dorsal fins. With that technology, he said, he is able to track their metabolic rate. The device measures how much time the sharks are resting and feeding and the temperature of their water.
When the water temperature goes up, their metabolic rate goes up and they eat more.
“What we can do with kids, is let them measure how much oxygen they use and how much calories they’re burning,” Lowe said. “With global warming, that means sharks will need to consume more. Think of it as ocean inflation. We can teach kids about physiology, math and even economics.
As with many of its programs, the Ocean Institute will make the new facility available to researchers from universities nationwide. Marshall said she expects Lowe’s graduate students will also use the institute’s lab.
Jim Serpa — a former supervising ranger at Doheny State Beach who holds “Shark Talks” at the state park — said the exhibit will do much to educate the greater shark-enthusiast community and shares Lowe’s enthusiasm.
“There are somewhere near 500 species of sharks and only a handful are dangerous to humans,” he said. “Most, like the local harmless horn shark, are extremely safe in the water and fascinating to dive with and learn with.”