Warehouse awash in aquarium attractions during renovation FISHING EXPEDITION

March 25, 1994|By Steve McKerrow | Steve McKerrow,Sun Staff Writer

Can you tell when fish are relaxing? Faith, Hope and Charity seem to be swimming a little more lazily these days, finning around and around a 12-foot-diameter fiberglass tank in a converted warehouse in Fells Point.

No tourists gawking. No kids knocking on the glass. No cameras flashing in their faces. Nobody around but a few handlers to feed them and keep the salinity of their tanks at proper levels.

The big grouper fish, you see, are on vacation -- their first since their debut as original residents of the Open Ocean Exhibit when the National Aquarium in Baltimore opened its doors in 1981.

Faith, Hope and Charity, as the long-timers have been dubbed by aquarium staff, are among more than 150 marine creatures idling away in temporary, anonymous housing while their home tank is being repaired.

The Atlantic Coral Reef and Open Ocean exhibit closed in November to permit a $12.7 million rehabilitation after corrosive damage from salt water. A laser-light exhibit, ImaginOcean, has replaced the live swimming show, and spring 1995 is the target date for re-opening the big fish tank.

The aquarium recently began showing a video in its lobby to address the most frequent question from visitors since last fall: "Where have all the fishes gone?"

Officials want the exact location kept secret. But a converted food warehouse in Fells Point now serves as home to most of the residents of the Atlantic Coral Reef exhibit, as well as seven big sharks.

"You can see this is very up close and personal," senior aquarist Juan Sabalones joked one recent afternoon to several visitors who had just been soaked by a shark.

Alan Henningsen, the other senior aquarist in charge of the new annex facility, was feeding the sharks, which swim around a tank that's 45 feet across. A 7-foot sand tiger, snatching for a whole porgy fish impaled at the end of a plastic pole, twisted his tail to send a sheet of water onto the visitors standing beside the tank at water level.

"If you fell in, I think they'd run . . . from you," says Mr. Sabalones.

Then again, he admits to having been bitten by a captive shark -- in 1991 in the only such incident in aquarium history. But he notes he was in a tank in diving gear, helping revive a nurse shark that had just been given a stimulant injection after a medical treatment.

"My arm got in the way," he says with a shrug, holding up his right forearm to show a line of purple-red scars.

Several of the sharks now at the annex -- three sand tigers, two nurse sharks and two smalltooth sawfish -- also number among the aquarium's longest residents. The nurse sharks were acquired in 1981 and 1982, and the sawfish arrived in 1985.

Aquarium officials had planned this month to begin allowing small groups of members to visit the warehouse but postponed the visits because of logistical difficulties.

"We do know that people particularly want to see the sharks and are looking at ways to do that," says Vicki Aversa, aquarium spokeswoman.

From the outside, one would hardly guess a population of exotic marine creatures lives inside the annex building. It looks like any number of industrial buildings in the harbor neighborhood, with a loading dock and grimy windows.

Indeed, Mr. Sabalones says, "if you like mandarin oranges, this is a great place to be stuck," for some food stocks remained from the previous tenant.

But inside, four circular tanks with fiberglass walls -- they look like sturdy, above-ground swimming pools -- dominate the 5,000 square feet of floor space. Each has viewing windows around the sides.

The sharks occupy the big pool. The bigger coral reef fish -- jacks, triggerfish, tripletail, snapper and the groupers -- swim in a 20-foot diameter tank. The smaller species -- grunts, squirrelfish, angelfish and "lookdowns" -- make do with a 12-foot-diameter tank.

The fourth tank is a mixing pool where the aquarists add a custom recipe of marine salts to good old Baltimore City tap water, creating the proper aquatic environment for the animals. The water recirculates through a three-step filtration system.

"Really, it is now a very high quality holding facility," says Chris Andrews, senior director of husbandry and operations for the aquarium.

In fact, he says, when the fish move back to the main facility, the aquarium intends to keep the annex. There the aquarium could acclimate newly acquired fish, administer medical care and do research.

The annex aquarists say preventing disease is their top priority.

Mr. Henningsen points to a number of objects floating in each of the tanks, for example. "These are bio-rings or bio-balls that help neutralize bacteria from fish waste," he says.

Food intake is monitored for the shark species, and Mr. Henningsen shops for their meals where people do: at local fish markets.

Officials also note that 90 percent of the aquarium's entire

collection remains in the twin Inner Harbor structures of the main facility, in display tanks or behind the scenes in other holding tanks.

"When we learned we would have to repair the coral reef tank, we had three options: relocate fish to other aquariums, release them, or we could hold them somewhere," says Mr. Andrews.

Some coral reef fish and sharks have gone "on temporary or long-term loan to other institutions." Four sharks were also released into the Atlantic off the Delaware coast.

The rest were transported the mile or so east to Fells Point, where officials had leased the warehouse in anticipation of the need last summer.

Officials said a few fish died in the stressful process but none were the larger species.

"With the annex, we plan now to have to remove very small numbers of animals from the environment" to maintain the aquarium's collection, says Mr. Andrews, suggesting that the facility's disease-monitoring efforts likely give captured species a longer life span than they would have in the wild.

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