9 cool facts about Newport Aquarium: Sharks are light eaters, but penguins are piggies

And they all eat only restaurant-quality food

NEWPORT, Ky. -- We all know the Newport Aquarium houses an array of incredibly cool exhibits and animals, but here are a few things that might surprise you.

General curator Mark Dvornak offered up nine interesting facts about the facility and its residents:

1. The largest exhibit holds 385,000 gallons of water.

“For people to put it into perspective, that’s the equivalent of 10,000 bathtubs of water. So that gives people an idea just how much water we’re talking about -- and that’s just in our main shark tank,” Dvornak said.

2. The aquarium makes all of its own seawater (salt water) on site and conducts more than 700 tests per week to ensure the quality of the water in exhibits.

“We use about over 84 tons of different chemicals. We have our own special blend of salt that we mix to get just the right kind of seawater that we want for our animals. Newport Aquarium has always been really well known for the quality of its water and the clarity, and in fact, our water-quality lab will actually do testing of other aquariums and facilities. They’ll send us water samples.”

3. The aquarium houses an estimated 90,500 pounds of acrylic plastic to contain the massive amounts of water, with more than 200 feet of underwater tunnels.

While Mighty Mike may weigh in at around 800 pounds, he only eats about four to six pounds of food each week. (Photo provided)

“That would be about the equivalent of seven football fields of acrylic that’s about one inch thick. The cool thing about our tunnels, especially in our Surrounded by Sharks Exhibit, is at one point you almost have 360 degrees around you. You’ve got acrylic over you as you’re walking onto the acrylic panels, so the sharks are actually swimming underneath your feet, too.”

4. The aquarium serves only restaurant-quality food to its residents.

“This food is such good quality it could be consumed by humans. In fact, we get a lot of our food from the same suppliers used to supply food to Red Lobster or Mitchell's Seafood. … It’s a great way to keep our animals healthy.”

5. Contrary to popular belief, penguins -- not sharks or alligators -- consume the most food per day and year at the aquarium.

“We feed our penguin community on average about 65 pounds of food per day here at the aquarium, so that works out to almost 24,000 pounds of food a year that just the penguins are consuming. Sharks are actually only fed once a week, and people are usually surprised by that. It’s because sharks are cold-blooded and they don’t have to consume a lot of calories to keep their bodies warm. And they typically are consuming about five to seven pounds on a weekly basis. And (800-pound gator) Mighty Mike, he is another one that’s right along the lines of sharks, is only consuming about four to six pounds of food when he does decide to eat.”

6. Biologists design exhibits to mirror an animal’s habitat in the wild in terms of size and environment.

“You’ll see animals that are surprisingly large, but their exhibits don’t necessarily have to be enormous because of their lifestyle -- they may be an ambush predator where they don’t typically move around a lot in the wild. And you'll see small animals in fairly large habitats. Our main goal with having these animals on display is to educate the general public about the need for conserving these animals and protecting their environment. I tell students you can learn a lot about an animal just by observing the habitat that the animal is in.”

7. One good way for guests to get over fear of sharks is to touch one.

“One of our goals is to get our guests beyond the glass to have interactions with these animals. You can see a lot of times these guests are hesitant to touch sharks because they have this image in their mind that Hollywood has presented of what a shark is and what they do. And then we give them the opportunity to interact with these animals and it dispels a lot of the myths, and that one touch can take a person from fear to fascination.”

8. Biologists design activities called enrichments to keep animals engaged while under professional care.

“In the wild, animals have to constantly fend for their lives, and one of the benefits of being under professional care is they don’t have worry about that here. So to keep them engaged, we provide them with interesting things to do in terms of interacting with food items or other inanimate objects within their exhibit. So that may be giving an otter or an octopus a food ball where they have to manipulate the container to get the food or adding a new feature to their habitat.”

9. WAVE Foundation sponsors more than 500 volunteers who put in 35,000 hours to help educate guests, prepare food, feed animals and keep exhibits sparkling clean both inside and out.

“The volunteers play a super-important role for us here at the aquarium. You can always tell which are your most popular exhibits just by the number of nose prints and finger prints on them. We have a special group of about 100 volunteer divers, and they’ll come in and do the underwater cleaning. They also do underwater dive presentations in our exhibits. People are always fascinated when they see divers underwater.”

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