Baltimore's new aquarium gets on swimmingly

Move over, Jacques Cousteau. It's like swimming through the darkened hold of the sunken Andrea Doria, seeing through the giant hole that sunk her a blue-lighted parade of tiger sharks, giant rays, sand bar sharks, sea turtles, and lemon sharks. They glide by, so close and huge that you are eyeball to eyeball with their unblinking, predatory gaze. You shiver as six or eight feet of sleek, velvety menace brushes past in the two-story, 200,000-gallon shark tank that puts the viewer in the center of an underwater ring, helpless as a guppy.

It's all part of the dramatic new National Aquarium in Baltimore. Tickets cost as much as the newest movie thriller ($4.50), but it's just as exciting.

The National aquarium, after a little more than two months in operation, is a smash hit. They're packing them in like canned tuna, 6,000 to 8,000 people a day. At times the crowds are so thick around the smaller exhibits that it's difficult to see, for instance, the "food webs" example of a largemouth bass engulfing a duckling.

By the end of September, over 291,000 people had visited the new aquarium and the crowds keep flowing in as word-of-mouth descriptions spread. Associate director William Flynn says, "I'm sure we do have a hit. I think it's unfortunate personally that we're so crowded this rapidly. Because it does take away a bit from the exhibits. . . . Fortunately we're not about to chase them out. We're running actually at capacity right now. Building code capacity is 3 ,000 people in the building at one time. And we're maintaining that capacity almost all day. . . ."

So people stand outside, even in the rain, queuing up to get into the $21.3 million building, which looks from the side like a big gray concrete whale with a glass fin and snout. Its hard, blunt lines are lightened a bit by a sort of free-form orange anchor at the entrance, and a bit of blue and green neon wave, a hint of the wave leitmotif inside.

From the moment you enter, you are submerged in the sight, smell, sound, touch, the ambiance of water. At the entrance water burbles loudly from blue plexiglass pillars called "bubble tubes" which children wrap themselves around in delight. Water plashes, dolphins splash, gulls squawk, foghorns boom, buoys clang, the sea crashes as you wend your way up and down the multitiered exhibit. There is even a small tidal pool in the "Children's Cove" where kids can get a whiff of brine as they pick up the sand dollars, whelks, horseshoe crabs, and skates that are part of this natural setting.

"Mom, do oysters crawl?" says a small tow-headed boy standing in front of an oyster bed display ("one oyster filters 50 gallons of water a day . . ." a sign reads).

"Jessie!" shrieks one excited little girl to another at another exhibit, "Here he is again!" The he, a poisonous lionfish, glares at her from under his long, striped fins, which float like big chiffon sails around him.

But at the National Aquarium in Baltimore the adults seem to have even more fun than the kids do, and the entrance figures reflect their interest. Adults ( 85 percent of the paid admissions) outnumber children, although Baltimore city schoolchildren are admitted free.

What they see is a 157-foot-high structure designed by Peter Chermayeff, chief architect of Cambridge Seven Associates, the Massachusetts firm that designed Boston's New England Aquarium in 1970. Visitors to both will notice variations and expansions on some of the themes which lured tourists through the earlier Boston design, wrapping the viewer in a multisensory experience.

The tour starts with a view of the 250,000-gallon dolphin pool, where bottlenose dolphins frisk at the bottom of a well of light reaching to the very top of the building, five stories above. Suspended dramatically over the well is the skeleton of a huge finback whale caught off Cape Cod in the 1880s. It floats like some bony Alexander Calder mobile in midair.

The impression of an underwater castle, complete with moats and drawbridges, is heightened by the ramped bridges and escalators that lead viewers up past exhibits: they include "Maryland mountains to the sea," a "Habitat theater" and the "Children's Cove" which duplicates a strip of Maine coastline. At the top of this watery mountain sits a glass-enclosed tropical rain forest, 5,600 square feet of hot, humid air, filled with lush green trees, macaws and parrots, occasional orchids, hibiscus, and other jungle flowers. White-faced tree ducks paddle at the foot of a small waterfall, and the green acouchi, which looks like a loden-green rat on stilts, skitters over the rocks.

This is a good place to take a breather, stare out at the glistening harbor below, and gather your energies. For the best part of the tour is the second half, that descends through the "ring" cycle of huge tanks and displays only glimpsed on the way up. From the rain forest the path descends to the "Atlantic Coral Reef." Its 13-foot-high wraparound windows put you in the center of an impressionist panorama in which 3,500 fish in all the colors of the paintbox -- parrotfish, grunts, stingrays, and barracuda among dozens of other species -- swim in and out of the largest coral reel exhibit in the United States.

Adding to the dreamy, undersea euphoria of this beauty is what can only be described as mermaid music -- like the music of the spheres several fathoms deep.

From here the way leads down to the "Open Ocean Tank," where the design of the ring tank again surrounds you with 10 different varieties of shark. It's an endless two-story circle of jaws and fins as horn sharks, nurse sharks, lemon sharks, and bonnetfish sharks slide by. Just below, there's the underwater view of the dolphin 'tray,' as it's called. There you can stand at 10-foot-wide windows below dolphin level and watch these sleek blue-gray fish with the wide smiles hurl themselves joyfully into the air above. The final display, "Man and the Sea," deals with the limits of the sea and takes the viewer down a three-minute mixed-media trip from the Allegheny Mountains to the sea. You end, as you began, realizing the truth of the Loren Eisley quote at the entrance of the aquarium: "If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water."

The National Aquarium is a 24-hour-a-day project, although it's open to the public only half that time. Says aquarium spokeswoman Nancy Checket, "We have to turn out the light in the hallways so the fish can get their sleep." The care and feeding of an aquarium is no small job: Associate director Bill Flynn says its denizens gobbled up more than 10,000 pounds of frozen food in th first month of operation. He notes that just one dolphin will eat 10 to 15 pounds of mackerel and herring. While the seals in the rock seal pool eat between 7 and 10 pounds each. In the rain forest they use 10 dozen varieties of seafood, from smelt, brine shrimp, and squid, to clams. All of which costs money.

How will this multimillion dollar aquarium keep itself afloat? With an annual budget of approximately $2.1 million, Mr. Flynn says the aquarium ("we will be self-sustaining") will pay most of its bills from tickets sales, along with gift shop sales, special events, memberships fees, and donations. Although congressional legislation has allowed the facility to call itself the National Aquarium in Baltimore, giving it clout and status, no federal funds are forthcoming at this point for support apart from a $52,000 National Sceince Foundation grant for workshops on hazardous materials in the harbor.

The facility is owned by the city of Baltimore, as one of the jewels in its urban-renewal restoration in the Inner Harbor area, a former slum. Across the water from its Pier 3 base rises the cream-colored hulk of the new Hyatt Hotel, still under construction. But the aquarium is operated by Baltimore Aquarium Inc., a private nonprofit institution. Of the original $21.3 million cost, the city put up $7.5 million, raised another $7.5 million from a bond issue, and the federal government contributed $1.5 million. The rest came through memberships and donations, private and corporate.

While the aquarium holds over 5,000 specimens of fish, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and vertebrates, there's always room for more. You can adopt one yourself with a contribution. In what they call an "Aquadopt" program , you can support the fish or mammal or snake of your choice. For example, $3, 000 can sponsor a bull shark, $450 a crimson-rumped toucanet, $125 a gila monster, $75 a white-lipped mud turtle, $50 a clown knifefish, $30 an electric blue tang, $25 a pink skunk clownfish, (or a huma-huma triggerfish) while $15 will keep anything from a feather duster worm to a saber-toothed blenny.

At this point, there are plans under way for expansion. If the aquarium continues to be successful, a Stage 2 section directly to the north at the front of the building will be built, which might include room for polar bears and a beluga whale. Immediate plans call for a sloth for the rain forest, and the acquisition of a chambered nautilus as well as a fluorescent Australian "pine cone" fish, which lights up at night like a pinball machine.

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