Planned repairs will pull plug on aquarium tanks

June 09, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

Prospective visitors to the National Aquarium have less than four months to see the original building on Pier 3 before two of its largest exhibits are shut down for repairs that will put them out of view until February 1995.

To make up for the temporary closing of the Atlantic Coral Reef and Open Ocean ring tank exhibits, which will be drained this fall, aquarium officials plan to install an "animated laser and light show" called ImaginOcean that will simulate the seascape of a reef within the ramped area where visitors now descend through the ring tanks.

They're also adding a series of interactive exhibits inside the Marine Mammal Pavilion on Pier 4 to give people more to see inside that building and to help offset the temporary absence of the Pier 3 exhibits.

"It's been quite a challenge to make these hallways into exhibit space, and I think the designers have been quite successful," said Frank Gunther Jr., chairman of the aquarium's board of governors.

"We want to get the word out that we will be open and we will have some attractions that haven't been seen before anywhere," said David Pittenger, the aquarium's deputy executive director. "In the next few weeks, it will all come together."

Designed by Cambridge Seven Associates in conjunction with aquarium staff and an all-star cast of consultants, the changes are part of a five-year, $24.5 million capital improvement program that represents the most costly overhaul ever planned for the state's largest paid attraction.

The original building opened in August 1981 and consistently draws 1.4 million people a year; the Marine Mammal Pavilion opened in late 1990. Officials stress that at no time will either building be closed to the public. They are also keeping admission rates the same: $11.50 for adults, $9.50 for seniors and $7.50 for children aged 3 to 11.

The Pier 3 ring tanks contain 555,000 gallons of water and close to 1,000 specimens. The $12.7 million in tank repairs are needed, officials say, to fix structural damage caused by saltwater, improve the appearance of the artificial coral reef and upgrade the life-support systems.

From its inception, the Pier 4 pavilion was meant to contain exhibits on characteristics of marine mammals to supplement the 1,300-seat amphitheater where crowds gather for daily dolphin demonstrations. The five-year campaign includes $2 million for the latest exhibits.

The first sign of the ring tank renovations will come in mid-October, when workers block off the tanks' curving glass windows and install the laser show, which will be operational by Thanksgiving.

Once the laser show is up and running satisfactorily -- most likely in December -- the ring tanks will be drained so repair work can begin. Most of the sand tiger sharks, sawfish and other specimens will be moved to holding tanks outside the building, although some reef fishes will be put on display near the front lobby. Sharks also will remain on display in the "Wings in the Water" pool near the building entrance.

Cambridge Seven partner Peter Chermayeff said the Pier 4 improvements are part of an industry trend in which more and more aquariums are using interactive exhibits that give visitors new ways to learn about the fish and mammals.

"We're curious to see how much the playfulness and interactive character of the exhibits seem to engage people," Mr. Chermayeff said. "If they can stroke the whiskers of a walrus, hear sounds from the sea, feel what blubber is like -- all of these things can give people a greater connection to these animals."

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