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Zoo welcomes its first sharks

SAN DIEGO -- A dozen leopard sharks will share a 200,000-gallon seawater pool with 20 African penguins when the first phase of the Africa Rocks attraction opens Saturday at the San Diego Zoo.

The predatory fish -- donated by SeaWorld San Diego -- began moving into the Cape Fynbos habitat Wednesday, marking the first time sharks have taken up residence there.

Leopard sharks do not see penguins as a food source. They live in shallow waters and primarily feed on invertebrates at the bottom of the ocean, like crabs, shrimp, clams, and anchovies, according to the zoo.

Ben Nevitt, an associate veterinarian at the zoo, said nearly all of the new fish have been released into the pool, after undergoing medical exams and waiting in a holding tank.

"They appear to be doing very well, showing nice swim patterns and swimming in both the shallow and deep ends," Nevitt said. "The penguins are showing a slight interest in the shark but both the penguins and shark appear to be settling in nicely together in their exhibit."

Zoo officials said having penguins and sharks in the same habitat is an opportunity for guests to learn about the diversity of aquatic life, and that not all sharks are scary.

"We think our guests are going to enjoy seeing and learning about these fascinating animals," said Kim Lovich, curator of fish and amphibians.

"Our reptile team has been training for over a year to learn the skills necessary to care for the shark, and the saltwater pool in which they reside," Lovich said. "We are grateful to SeaWorld San Diego for lending their expertise to our team, on the care of these animals."

According to the zoo, leopard sharks are not native to Africa, but are similar to species found in the waters where African penguins live. They're one of the most common types of sharks found along the coast of California.

The sharks in the Cape Fynbos habitat range in age from 5 to 20 years old, and average between 3 and 5 feet in length, the zoo said.

The Cape Fynbos penguin habitat in Africa Rocks features a cobblestone beach surface, penguin nesting areas and rockwork that mimics the granite boulders found at Boulders Beach in South Africa.

After Cape Fynbos opens Saturday, other areas of Africa Rocks will follow over the next few weeks.