A kelp bed and a tropical reef might be the
last things you'd expect to see in Las Vegas.





Kelp beds are the forests of the oceans,
harboring incredible sealife
.

The inquisitive Garibaldi greets visitors to its neighborhood.

The Luxor Hotel and Casino and its neighbor Mandalay Bay Resort offer these aquatic treats to visitors weary from the heat and bustle of the Strip. "Into the Deep" is a gorgeous 3-D documentary playing at the Luxor; Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay is an aquarium showcasing the fauna of tropical seas and rivers.

Viewing a film at Luxor's IMAX® theater is like watching a tennis match; the screen is so large that you have to move your head constantly to see everything. Far from being a problem, such a panorama adds to the sense of being surrounded by the film's scenes. It makes the theater ideal for nature documentaries, spooky films like the new "Haunted Castle", and action flicks like "The Matrix Reloaded", currently playing at Luxor as of summer 2003.

"Into the Deep" is directed by renowned underwater filmmaker Howard Hall and the film gives us a look at the beauty of a Pacific kelp bed. Besides capturing the majesty of this underwater forest, whose "trees" of giant kelp sway gently with the waves, the film also offers fascinating glimpses of the daily lives of its inhabitants. I have dived off the California coast and have seen plenty of Garibaldi, the plucky little orange fish that watch us curiously while guarding their nests, but until now I had never seen one actually pick up a pesky sea urchin and carry it away gingerly in its mouth. You know it's a good film when you frequently ask yourself, "How in the world did they get that shot?"

This film is presented in three-dimensional format, which intensifies your sense of being right in the scene. Two separate pictures are projected onto the screen, and viewers wear special glasses that combine the two to provide realistic depth of field. In one scene, shot right at the surface of a sunlit kelp bed, the 3-D effect makes it look as if you are up to your neck in the water. At the beginning of the scene, I heard little gasps of delight from around the theater. I myself had to resist the urge to tread water in my seat. Other shots place you right in the middle of an enormous frenzy of mating squid and face-to-face with a sleek Blue Shark, which seems to swim right out of the screen at you. Looking through the glasses is a bit of extra work for the eyes, somewhat like looking through binoculars, but the enhanced viewing experience is well worth the effort.

Ready To Get Up Close And Personal With Sea Life?


Cross over from Luxor to the Mandalay Bay Resort through the new elevated indoor walkway and follow the signs down the casino's south wing to Shark Reef, past the Border Grill Restaurant. (Resist the urge to stop for a margarita.) It's a rather long walk, and you'll feel like you're in Yuma, Arizona by the time you reach the ticket booth, but fear not - the exhibit looks nothing like Yuma. You'll walk into a misty world of ancient ruins overgrown by lush jungle flora. The first few aquarium tanks simulate submerged temples, with the fish swimming among crumbling pillars of stone.

Dive In HereThere is very little written information on the walls of the exhibit. Instead, visitors are given hand-held speaker-phones that provide recorded narration at each tank. If you have trouble getting your speaker to work, as I did mine, you can simply backtrack through the aquarium to the start point to trade for a new one. Knowledgeable guides are stationed in some areas to answer questions, including at the "touch pool," where guests can see what a stingray or horn shark feels like, and at the new Amazon piranha tank. I suspect these guides are also here to keep us from causing any trouble, but did they really think I was going to try to pet the piranhas?




Sights and sounds of tropical
jungles surround you
in the sunken temple.




Shark Reef is the only place
in the Western Hemisphere
with Golden Crocodiles.
and Hammerhead Sharks.

Mandalay Bay Resort went to great effort to create an inviting and exotic environment for the guests as well as the fish. I already mentioned the jungle-temple area, and if I ever visit the amazing Angkor Wat Temple ruins in Cambodia, I'll probably say something silly like, "Hey, this looks just like..." The freshwater tanks realistically simulate shady pools in a tropical river, and the beautiful ocean reef exhibits are teeming with colorful corals, fish, rays, and small sharks. There are also a few reptiles, including the intricately patterned Water Monitor lizard and the Golden Crocodile, whose pale gold scales are bordered in black, making the animal look like an amphibious crossword puzzle. The main event, of course, is the large tank containing fearsome-looking sand tiger sharks, large green turtles, barracuda, and a nurse shark nearly ten feet long. The viewing area simulates a sunken pirate ship from which you can see the critters on three sides and even below through a glass panel in the floor. Other areas have arched glass enclosures where you can watch them swim over your head, so close that you can count the sand tiger's menacing teeth.

As you might expect, you'll exit the aquarium through its gift shop. If you like the sounds of ocean and jungle, check out the collection of nature CDs and listen to samples on the headphones provided. They are good reminders of the exotic tropical environment you just experienced in the middle of the desert.

Okay, now you can visit the Border Grill for a margarita. Oh, and don't feel guilty about ordering the fish tacos.

By Robert LaGrone, Jetsetters Magazine's Sport Diving Editor.



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