With a singular thrust of its muscular tail, the shark shouldered past his two companions, broke the water’s surface and — rather gently for a fellow named “Bruiser” — retrieved a food tidbit from a child at the side of the tank.
The child beamed as the hefty nurse shark, entirely dog-like, accepted the snack and looped around in a playful circle.
“The golden retrievers of the shark world,” said Kathy Hiester, who, along with her husband Shawn, founded the recently opened St. Augustine Aquarium.
Bruiser is just one of the hundreds of sea animals visitors can experience up close at the aquarium, which received its first wave of visitors during Monday’s soft opening.
“If you ever swim in the ocean and have something bump your foot, this is where you can see what it could be,” Kathy said.
In a tank parallel to the nurse shark exhibit, Kathy dangled her finger above the water. A tiny trunkfish she called “Otis” abandoned his food to follow her hand.
“These guys are very people-oriented,” she said as Otis reached for her index finger.
Nearby, an array of rays floated gracefully past glass walls where children squished their noses for a closer look. A male guitarfish paused long enough for onlookers to see the exhibit’s bottom through his translucent snout. Nearby, a female guitarfish appeared significantly larger, a sign little ones might be on the way.
“Their gestation is an entire year,” Kathy explained. “At the rate they’re being fished, they’ll never be able to repopulate.”
The dark reality of Kathy’s words is also the reason she and her husband worked tirelessly to create an aquarium that promotes “conservation through education.” Everything within the marine center, from the streamlined surgeonfish to the haughty queen angelfish, can be found in Florida’s coastal waters.
“The fish are being overfished, the sharks are being depleted,” Kathy said. “This is a good way for people to experience these animals and learn about them.”
The aquarium has just recently completed Phase I of its exhibit, feauturing an 80,000-gallon snorkel tank, an interactive shark and stringray cove and several other aquatic exhibits. The snorkel tank is home to more than 200 reef fish, which visitors can view through eye-level glass walls. Phase II of the aquarium will be completed sometime next year, adding 170,000-gallons and 8,000 square feet of indoor marine conservation habitats including sharks, stingrays, moray eels, barracuda, octopus, jellyfish and 70 species of reef fish.
Shawn Hiester said it’s a dream he’s had since childhood.
“Ever since I was a kid, marine life has fascinated me,” he said.
As toddlers pointed from their strollers and children tugged on their parents’ arms, it was obvious curiosity for the Great Blue hasn’t changed with the generations.
But Shawn said it’s not just the youngsters reaping the benefits of a personal ocean experience.
“You see the kids get excited, but then you see the adults act the same way,” he said, pausing to demonstrate an expression of excitement. “I mean, their faces just light up!”
He added that his favorite fish is Bruiser, who is always the first to greet him in the mornings.
“He’s the lover of all the sharks,” he said. “In the mornings I holler his name and he comes right up to greet me.”
That connection is one the couple hopes to pass on to all of the aquarium’s visitors.
“We want people to connect through learning,” Kathy said. “That’s the best way to raise awareness.”
The St. Augustine Aquarium is located on 2045 State Road 16 at the intersection of Interstate 95. For more information about ticket costs and exhibits, including the snorkel experience, go to www.saaquarium.com or call 904-429-9777. Hours of operation are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and a grand opening will happen sometime in January.