Fishing For an Audience, Aquariums Expand Repertoire

Vast new exhibits replicate natural habitats and keep fish happy.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Rosa, the baby sea otter, is a dream come true for Portugals new aquarium. Europes largest, the $70-million Lisbon aquarium opened May 22 as the centerpiece for Expo 98. And what better measure of success than a grand opening starring a newborn otter.

But the playful pup, then only three weeks old, presented a dilemma. Millions of visitors wanted to see tiny Rosa, but she still was fragile. And it wasnt possible to seal off the sea-otter exhibit because of its location.

We had to close half of the aquarium for several hours midday so the baby could nurse and nap. There were no complaints from the public, says Peter Chermayeff, president of International Design for the Environment Associates Inc. (IDEA) in Cambridge, Mass. IDEA, along with sister company Cambridge Seven Associates Inc., was involved in the aquariums architecture and design.

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Little Rosa and the giant Lisbon oceanarium symbolize a new trend in aquariums, which have become big business. Multimillion-dollar investments go into complex exhibits that replicate natural habitats to keep the animals healthy and happy. And the exhibits intend to draw visitors to revitalized waterfronts in cities large and small.

The Oceanario de Lisboa is one of the worlds larger new aquariums. It has a 1.22-million-gallon central tank surrounded by four major habitats of the world: the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Sub-Antarctic Oceans. The exhibits are two-stories high, so visitors can see the habitats both above and below water. And they can see through tanks and into other tanks. The idea, says Mr. Chermayeff, is to totally immerse visitors in the worlds oceans.

Today, there are dozens of new aquariums being designed and built throughout the world, and many existing aquariums are expanding. The costs range from $8 million for a regional aquarium highlighting local species to $100 million or more for facilities with huge community tanks that are a sort of United Nations of the fish world.

Aquariums have established themselves as a viable and valuable contribution to urban life, recreation, and learning, Chermayeff says. Now aquariums are being built as though a city is not complete without one.

The forthcoming Gulf of Maine Aquarium, due to open in Portland on Memorial Day, 2003, aims to draw 716,000 visitors annually.

With a comparatively modest budget of $42 million, the aquarium will be built in a horseshoe shape among Portlands waterfront piers. It will include both internal and external, saltwater and freshwater exhibits. And it will highlight regional aquatic life from streams, ponds, bogs, estuaries, beaches, tide pools, and the Gulf of Maine itself.

We had to save money and cope with Maines seasons, including the cold winter, says Donald Perkins, president of the Gulf of Maine Development Corp. There will be a series of naturally functioning exhibits, such as using harbor water for a seal community that will be a centerpiece of the aquarium.

The aquarium will be able to show off the four seasons as a backdrop to its exhibits, so visitors can see foliage changes in the fall and wild flowers in the spring, says Dick Lyons, principal of Lyons/Zaremba Inc., a Boston exhibit design firm.

The first step in aquarium design is the location and buildings. Sometimes water can be pumped in directly from an ocean or bay; sometimes it needs to be trucked in or purified. A group of designers, architects, exhibit planners, marine biologists, zoologists, and other scientists collaborate in the effort.

You want to build a habitat that promotes the full behaviors of the animals, says Steve Imrich, an architect with Cambridge Seven.

A theme must be devised for each aquarium. Sea-life exhibits no longer are just a series of tanks in the wall: Each aims to tell a story that flows along with the exhibits, says John Stebbins, principal at Cambridge Seven.

Nocturnal and hard-to-see species present special display challenges. For example, the jellyfish exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Calif., required special side lighting with bright incandescent halogen and back lighting through translucent acrylic to show off the animals, says Andy Case, aquarium special exhibits coordinator. The jellyfish also needed adequate water filtration. But since they tend to suck on the filter screens, Mr. Case had to run a parallel current that blows the delicate creatures away from the screen without harming them.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is the nations largest marine sanctuary, with 300,000 creatures and more than 570 species of plants and animals found in the bay. About 1,500 gallons of raw seawater is pumped in from Monterey Bay each minute to sustain a three-story, 335,000-gallon living kelp forest and other exhibits.

The story is much the same at newer aquariums. The Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif., which opened in June, filters about 900,000 gallons of saltwater an hour for its exhibits. That requires more than 10 miles of piping, 79 pumps, 44 pressurized sand filters, and 14 ozone and 14 de-gas chambers. Cleaning the massive exhibit windows is a big job, as is monitoring water quality and potential parasites. It also is important to introduce animals into the community tank in the proper order, says Ken Yates, vice president of husbandry at Long Beach Aquarium. First, the smaller, less aggressive fish are put into the tank to establish themselves and find hiding places. Then the more aggressive fish move in.

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