Monday | April 20, 2015
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Dolphin Quest gets sharky

The Atlantic bottlenose dolphins aren’t the only crowd-pleasers at Dolphin Quest. During the past six months, they have been sharing the spotlight with their new eye-catching neighbors.

Two blacktip reef sharks were relocated this summer from West Hawaii Explorations Academy to their new digs — an ocean-fed lagoon, with multiple species, at the Hilton Waikoloa Village. Distinguished by the dark black coloring on the tips of their fins, these sharks are male, 4.5 feet long and 5 years old, said Erik Nash, Dolphin Quest aquarist.

The sharks were named Kainoa and Nahoa. Kainoa has a small white dot on his left pectoral fin and Nahoa is a bit bigger, Nash said.

One of main reasons Dolphin Quest added the sharks to its marine animal family is to educate the public about the importance of these predators in the environment. Sharks are in need of an image upgrade, especially with all the myths and assumptions generated by the media and movies such as “Jaws.” Dolphin Quest is passionate about helping to demystify sharks, create connections, and replace fears with facts, Nash said.

Not all sharks are apex predators. In fact, blacktip sharks are hunted and preyed upon by larger sharks. Sharks help keep their prey populations healthy by eating sick and dying members. This prevents the spread of disease to other animals and keeps the ocean’s intricate food webs in balance, Nash said.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature categorizes more than half of global shark species as threatened, vulnerable or endangered to extinction. Nearly 80 to 100 million sharks are killed yearly by fisheries. Sharks are usually fished for their meat, liver oil, cartilage and fins. Their fins, typically hacked off from live sharks, are used in the Asian delicacy shark fin soup. The blacktip is one of the sharks considered a tasty target, Nash said.

The sharks at Dolphin Quest act as “ambassadors for their wild counterparts,” helping educate the public about the importance of this species and their plight. Hopefully, that awareness results in greater respect for sharks and conservation action, including not eating shark fin soup, Nash said.

“The idea is to promote better stewardship of sharks and their habitats,” he said.

In the future, Dolphin Quest would like to offer shark interactions. However, the company’s current priority is making sure the sharks are happy and healthy in their new home, as well as continue to thrive on exhibit, said Mark DiMartino, regional sales and marketing manager.

WHEA got the sharks, which were pups at the time, offshore Kaneohe Bay, Oahu. The sharks were kept in a 14,000-gallon lagoon and used for the Aloha Kai Tour Project, a peer education outreach program that’s hosted more than 26,500 students since its inception in 1994, said WHEA co-director Curtis Muraoka.

During the Aloha Kai tours, WHEA students act as docents, sharing information about their school and presenting mini environmental science lessons to children, he said.

When two blacktips became too big for WHEA’s lagoon, the school began looking for another home for the sharks. Releasing them into the ocean was not an option because they have spent most of their lives in creativity and may not have the skills to survive, Muraoka said.

Relocating the sharks to Dolphin Quest was “a win-win situation.” Though it has been nearly 40 years since “Jaws,” the fear of sharks still exists, as well as the impression of sharks as terrifying mindless eating machines. But the truth is, sharks are magnificent animals and are part of an exciting group of fishes, Muraoka said.

Having the sharks at Dolphin Quest allows for more educational opportunities to take place, Muraoka said. WHEA still has two sharks in its lagoon: one blacktip and one whitetip, he added.

The sharks have more space at in the Dolphin Quest lagoon, which is more conducive for their needs and resembles the natural environment, DiMartino said. The area is also adequate enough for the sharks to reach cruising speed and to accommodate their maximum length of about 6 feet, Nash added.

As many as three times per day, an eight-member Dolphin Quest team makes assessments of the sharks and works to train them. The sharks are fed restaurant-quality fish, squid and shrimp, Nash said.

“Following the transport and after two days of not eating, the sharks are doing well,” he said. “They’re healthy and there’s been no major problems.”

For more information, visit dolphinquest.com.