Sharks are the stars of a splashy new exhibit hall at the New York Aquarium that marks a major step in the beachfront facility’s recovery from the devastating impact of 2012’s Superstorm Sandy.
Set in a shiny building behind the Coney Island boardwalk, “Ocean Wonders: Sharks!” with its largest tank at 379,000-gallons is set to open on Saturday while work continues on the rest of the aquarium’s 14-acre campus, more than half of which remains closed almost six years after Sandy.
The Wildlife Conservation Society was about to break ground on “Sharks!” when Sandy knocked out power and flooded the aquarium, which is situated on the narrow peninsula that forms Coney Island.
“I honestly thought in that first 20 minutes that we’d lost the aquarium,” said director Jon Forrest Dohlin.
The new shark exhibit was put on hold while staffers worked around the clock to rescue as many animals as possible and reopen parts that weren’t too badly damaged. It’s housed in a 57,500-square-foot building whose undulating shapes are clad in a “shimmer wall” of aluminum tiles that evoke scales or a school of sardines.
Inside there are 12 species of sharks as well as six species of skates and rays. Dozens of other sea creatures from loggerhead sea turtles to striped bass join them in three massive tanks and several smaller ones.
Sharks swim overhead in the tunnel-shaped coral reef exhibit, creating the illusion that the visitor is another ocean dweller. The other two big tanks are stocked with marine life from the waters off New York, including red and white anemones, purple sea urchins and pink starfish that few New Yorkers would peg as neighbors.
“If you go swimming in the water above your waist you’re swimming with these animals,” Dohlin said. “We want people to understand that there’s all this cool stuff in our water.”
Susan Chin, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s in-house architect, said she grew up in New York without ever knowing much about the ocean habitats that surround the city.
“Wow, we have seahorses under the Brooklyn Bridge?” Chin said. “You’ve been living in this city all your life and you didn’t know that. That’s our job, to open people’s eyes to nature. And to help them make that connection.”
The showpiece is a huge tank representing the Hudson Canyon, a submarine canyon that starts near the mouth of the Hudson River. There are sand tiger sharks with fearsome teeth, sandbar sharks with tall dorsal fins and nurse sharks huddled together on the tank floor. There are small fish like permits and jack crevalles, a loggerhead turtle named Blue and a roughtail stingray named Ray Charles.
A key message of the exhibit is that sharks have more to fear from humans that humans have to fear from sharks.
“They’re large great whites that will eat you, that’s what people think” Dohlin said. “The truth is, of course, they’re very diverse, they’re very important, they’re getting wiped out. So that’s something that we really want to turn on its head.”