Staying High and Dry In a Watery World

New aquarium opens at the Mall of America

"Oh, wow! Look at that one!" shouts the flaxen-haired 9-year-old pointing at a bright -red, fork-tailed fish as it drifts over the boy's head and outstretched arm. In the eerie, blue-green light the boy's mother adjusts her headset and squints at the pamphlet in her hand.

"Lesee....." she says. "Ah! Here it is. That's number 35 - a dusky squirrelfish!"

Welcome to UnderWater World, the last word in live, underwater exhibits. It occupies 70,000 square feet beneath the ground floor of Bloomington's gigantic Mall of America. The featured attraction of the $30-million facility is a 300-foot long, 7' x 7' acrylic tunnel that snakes its way like a moray eel through a series of fish-filled fresh and salt water habitats. Passing through it takes one on a simulated underwater journey down the Mississippi River from one of its headwater lakes in northern Minnesota, down through the Louisiana Delta, out into the Gulf of Mexico, and eventually into a coral reef somewhere in the depths of the Caribbean.

The trip begins above ground, after adults have paid $8.95. Stepping through the entryway, visitors are in a mist-shrouded northern Minnesota upland forest. The light is low and the air is cool, simulating an early morning in autumn.

Through a headset and recorder one hears the plaintive call of a loon and other sounds of a north woods morning. A descending ramp takes visitors by a running brook that spills over fabricated limestone ledges. Rock-lined pools hold various species of trout and other fish of northern Minnesota streams, while a narrator explains the significance of the scene.

Stepping onto a moving walkway, visitors are slowly moved along the depths of a northern Minnesota lake (complete with surface ice and ice-fishing holes). Above, schools of muskellunge, northern pike, walleyes and other denizens of northern Minnesota lakes swim overhead. Then passing through a rock archway, the scene and species change - schools of shortnosed gar, flathead and channel catfish and other fish of the Louisiana Delta.

Entering the Gulf of Mexico tank, visitors are surrounded by several large sandtiger sharks, big sandbar and nurse sharks. A bend in the tunnel takes one into a brightly colored, artfully fabricated coral reef where visitors are immersed in schools of bluehead wrasse, foureye butterfly fish, blackbar soldierfish and dusky squirrelfish and other Caribbean species.

Throughout the 35-minute audiotour, visitors are informed about what species they are seeing and facts about the fishes' biology and habitat.

The tunnel ultimately ends in a soon-to-be-completed exhibit area dominated by a 50-foot touch tank of simulated rock that staff says will contain clams, mussels, leeches, and other small aquatic creatures that can be handled. Free-standing exhibit kiosks are slated to be installed nearby. Around a corner and adjacent to a gift shop, is a classroom area for school groups that sign up for workshops and short courses in aquatic ecology and marine biology. Classes will be run in cooperation with area educational institutions by the Midwest Tarlton Institute for Marine Education. The Institute is a nonprofit spinoff of the aquarium's parent company, Tarlton Aquastar Limited Partnership of Dallas, Texas.

UnderWater World is one of two such Tarlton facilities in the US. (The other is at San Francisco's Pier 39; a third will be opening next year in Hawaii). Tarlton's founder, Erik Pedersen, a former animal pharmaceutical salesman, named the company after the late Kelly Tarlton, a New Zealand entrepreneur who developed the curved-wall acrylic tunnel - the signature feature of all UnderWater Worlds.

Using entertainment to promote science education and to raise environmental awareness - while making a profit - Mr. Pedersen has pitched his aquarium's message to reach, as he says, "the 90 percent" of the public who know little or nothing of aquatic ecology.

A staff of some 160 maintains the 1.2-million-gallon facility that contains more than 10,000 fish (and some 75 species).

The aquarium, which opened here on June 14, is privately financed. To pay off its debt and stay financially healthy, however, it must attract some 900,000 visitors a year. Officials aren't concerned. At current rates, they expect to pull in some 1.8 million paying customers by the end of the first year of operation.

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