Showing the Truth About Predators: A Conversation with Adrienne Rowland, Director of Shark Reef Aqua

Since opening in 2000, Shark Reef Aquarium at Mandalay Bay has inspired the residents and tourists of Las Vegas to look past the misconceptions of predators, especially sharks. Much of the success of the organization has been because of Adrienne Rowland, the aquarium's director since 2008. Her commitment to providing top-notch animal care, insightful experiences, professional development, excellent guest service and storytelling has let Shark Reef Aquarium flourish. Rowland currently serves on the Board of Directors for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, helping steer the direction the organization goes in. Here is her story.

@ Shark Reef Aquarium

Adrienne Rowland’s background was not in aquariums but rather guest services. “I’ve been in Las Vegas for over twenty years but started out in the hospitality field opening resorts,” she recalled. “Through another position, I knew the [previous] director of Shark Reef. Based on my experience in guest experiences, he invited me to become operations manager in 2002.” The position was a perfect fit. “It was the culmination of everything I loved- conservation, guest experience and animals,” Rowland reflected. “I was really drawn to being in an environment where I could be around animals and people could have amazing experiences you only can get in an aquarium.”

@ Shark Reef Aquarium

Shark Reef Aquarium is one of the few aquariums in the nation built inside a resort. “We consider Mandalay Bay a resort integrated with multiple hotels and entertainment venues,” Rowland commented. “An aquarium fit in with the tropical [theme of the resort.] The original developers knew [the resort] needed a spectacular experience done with the utmost care. They partnered with the Vancouver Aquarium on the concept design and worked with aquarium professionals to build this unique experience. From the moment you buy your ticket and go up, [the aquarium] is fully themed with a story that goes along with it. It was unique in that way when it first opened [as] it transported you to this location to make you feel like you were going from a jungle, down into the ocean with a shipwreck and the fantastic sights and sounds. That was a big driver.”

@ Shark Reef Aquarium

Since opening, Shark Reef Aquarium has concentrated on predators, whether sharks, Komodo dragons, piranhas or crocodiles. This has allowed the aquarium to talk about why predators are important in an ecosystem. “We are a predator-based aquarium,” Rowland explained. “We take the things that make most people gasp in the forefront and explain why they are important. It’s sneaky education. People want to come and be surrounded by sharks but we use that to drive an educational message. It has been a great 18 years of educating the public on the importance of predators in an environment, why they need to be protected and why we need to care about them.”

@ Shark Reef Aquarium

When Adrienne Rowland was promoted to Assistant Director and later to Director in 2008, she took on a unique challenge. “I used that time to learn about the animal care side and everything else,” she recalled. “I had to learn basically everything I could about caring for sharks, fish and animal care as a whole. Sometimes it’s a good and bad thing to have someone without an animal background in leadership. I knew the responsibility I would have and took it as a learning opportunity. Much to my staff’s dismay, I ask a lot of questions,” Rowland continued. “I ask questions because I want to learn, grow and understand. Sometimes those questions open eyes to a new and better way.”

@ Shark Reef Aquarium

One of Rowland’s first actions as Director was completely rebranding Shark Reef. “One of the biggest challenges was not everyone understood exactly what we were,” she elaborated. “I took the time and worked with our marketing team to rebrand the aquarium so people understood what they were going to experience. We changed the name from Shark Reef to Shark Reef Aquarium. Before, people would come and ask if [Shark Reef] was a restaurant or pool so we focused on telling people what we were. That also started more educational information on our website. We had to really inform people what we were doing and set the stage before they arrived.”

@ Shark Reef Aquarium

Rowland was determined to help the aquarium grow and provide more opportunities for guests to connect with animals. “The other thing we did was evolve the aquarium and our education programs,” she articulated. “We continue to add more guest experiences and put people as close to animals as we can. That opens up their eyes to see how it’s like to dive with a shark or feed a stingray. You see joy on their face when they interact with these animals, especially as most people don’t interact with them much at all. We continue to look at what’s the next great way to bring our guests closer to animals and give more conservation messaging and tell our guests why we need to protect these animals.”

@ Shark Reef Aquarium

Shark Reef Aquarium has changed a number of its animal spaces to better engage guests, tell stories of aquatic places and inspire them to want to save aquatic life. “The aquarium’s footprint hasn’t changed but we’ve evolved the exhibits,” Rowland noted. “We converted a crocodile habitat into one for Komodo dragons and an eel exhibit to one for a Giant Pacific octopus. For the most part, octopuses are static but, when they’re showing off, they create a spectacle. We were originally entirely Indo-pacific animals but have diversified with an Amazon exhibit with piranhas and freshwater stingrays. A lot of guests are surprised to learn about freshwater stingrays.”

@ Shark Reef Aquarium

Shark Reef Aquarium now can talk about a wider variety of conservation stories. “We have an exhibit where almost all the animals were pets confiscated by U.S. Fish and Wildlife- river turtles, Burmese pythons [and so forth],” Rowland stated. “We can talk about why these animals need to be protected in their homelands. We try to educate people on why private individuals should not have endangered animals. We have a little corner in the Asian area with some small lizards to highlight those species. A lot of our exhibits are very large so bringing in an animal just complements that environment. We take extra time and care to get guest to recognize individual species among schools of sharks.”

@ Shark Reef Aquarium

One species the aquarium has specialized in is great hammerhead sharks. “We were the first aquarium in the U.S. to have great hammerheads,” Rowland said. “We had to learn about the care of these animals. With that comes challenges as you have a new animal without a lot of history in human care. We had to really up our game.” Shark Reef Aquarium pioneered the husbandry of great hammerheads in human care.

@ Shark Reef Aquarium

A major focus for Shark Reef Aquarium has been animal wellness. “We’ve really focused on managing the animals from a welfare perspective,” Rowland elaborated. “How often do they need physicals or need to be moved? We need to be very cognizant of that. We have our own animal welfare committee that discusses those things and we’re constantly looking at ways to improve animal care. It’s a learning process. All my curators have worked here since the aquarium opened so I have this great wealth of history and knowledge to draw from. We also bring in outside colleagues and resources to assist us and I think that’s important too. It’s all about what’s best for the animal and how can we make sure they’re thriving.”

@ Shark Reef Aquarium

Shark Reef Aquarium has become a leader in breeding its iconic species. “We are one of the most prolific shark breeders in the U.S., particularly of sandbars, reef sharks and bonnetheads,” Rowland mentioned. “One thing we’ve been able to contribute to the community is many of our sharks have gone on to other facilities to continue the positive message on sharks. We’re working with other institutions on artificial insemination [on sharks.] We’re constantly working and engaged in breeding, research and conservation.”

@ Shark Reef Aquarium

In addition to animal wellness, Shark Reef Aquarium has concentrated on allowing guests to see sharks in a whole different light. “We continue to develop programs that let guests get closer to sharks,” Rowland explained. “Certified divers can dive with us in the shipwreck exhibit and be surrounded by sharks. It’s a once in a lifetime experience and guests on the public side realize it’s just a guest and they’re amazed. When you explain they’re not interested in us as food, people tend to get it. We allow people to feed sharks and talk about how their behavior isn’t that different in the wild. We’re trying to reduce the stigma of sharks a few million guests at a time.”

@ Shark Reef Aquarium

In 2016, Adrienne Rowland was elected to the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s board of directors. “I’ve been actively involved in AZA for a number of years and was honored to be selected,” she remarked. “The great thing is getting to be involved in helping craft and form the future of this organization. We rolled out a new strategic plan with Dan Ashe [AZA’s President and CEO.] The focus [of the strategic plan] is continuing to address critics of zoos and aquariums, reinforcing the strongest standards and focusing on the welfare of our animals. S.A.F.E. (Saving Animals From Extinction) has evolved as well and it is really going to open up the number of members who can do real conservation work and save animals from extinction. We can collaborate and AZA will become the facilitator. We can show the public the amount of conservation work that is taking place in zoos and aquariums. As a collective, we can accomplish a lot.”

@ Shark Reef Aquarium

Over the course of Rowland’s ten-year tenure as Director, Shark Reef Aquarium has grown drastically in reputation and scope. “The thing I’m most proud of accomplishing is building the reputation of Shark Reef Aquarium,” she reflected. “Much like our guests have evolved and learned more about sharks, through my team the community has legitimized the work we’ve done and built our reputation as a contributor to world-class conservation and education.”

@ Shark Reef Aquarium

“Our very first inspection team expected to just see a fish tank next to a slot machine but were surprised to see how much we did with local school groups and how the aquarium was away from the casino,” Rowland elaborated. “It took time to show we were here for the right reasons but it didn’t mean we weren’t doing great work or didn’t want to educate the public. Shark Reef Aquarium is now regarded as a professional organization with all the right things in place. Ultimately me joining the board shows the work Shark Reef Aquarium does and contributes to the aquarium community. We’ve educated our own community and I think that’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”

“We also get unique zoo-aquarium guests as most of our guests are tourists,” Rowland noted. “We are an important local resource but most of our guests come from somewhere else and we tend to attract a different kind of visitor. That gives us a unique opportunity to educate guests about sharks.”

@ Shark Reef Aquarium

“Aquariums are really evolving from just a place to show the underworld world to a public space to showcase outward conservation work,” Rowland reflected. “I’ve seen a lot of aquariums and zoos change their organization to be a conservation-based organization that happens to have an aquarium or a zoo. We’re evolving our facilities to utilize them as an education portion of the work done in the field. We need to bring that message to the guests, preserve the guest connection and evolve the conservation and field work to show why these animals are important.”

@ Shark Reef Aquarium

“Aquariums are focused on the importance of the ocean,” Rowland articulated. “Even though we’re in a desert, we need to show we are all still affected by the ocean. We need to create that a-ha moment. Climate change and overfishing are all important topics at aquariums. It’s about asking whether or not you need to use that straw. I see aquariums going into this public education format with great exhibits, conservation and research.”

@ Shark Reef Aquarium

“I’d really like to continue to evolve the aquarium to an even stronger education and conservation awareness message,” Adrienne Rowland concluded. “Ultimately, we need to evolve the guest experience to include new elements that highlight unique challenges and what’s going on [in the ocean.]”

@ Adrienne Rowland

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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