It'll soon be safe for sharks to go back in the water

October 27, 1994|By Howard Henry Chen | Howard Henry Chen,Sun Staff Writer

If all goes according to schedule, the sharks should be home in time for Christmas.

Plans to reopen the Open Ocean ring tanks at the National Aquarium in Baltimore have been pushed up, with the shark tank and a full complement of sharks expected to be ready for visitors by the December holidays, and a new coral reef and fish exhibit to be opened by next spring, aquarium officials said yesterday.

The tanks, which sit squarely in the middle of the aquarium building and hold 560,000 gallons of water, have been undergoing a $14 million renovation since last October because saltwater had corroded the tanks' concrete and steel structural base.

The Atlantic Coral Reef exhibit, which will rest above the shark tank, will replace the laser-created ImaginOcean exhibit, which will close in January.

L The original opening date was slated for April of next year.

Aquarium officials yesterday trumpeted improvements for the exhibits, including a darker color for the tank walls and fiber optic lighting fixtures, which will better simulate a natural 24-hour cycle. Also, part of the tank floor was raised 14 inches to make it closer to the viewing panes, and a new simulated jet stream should carry the sharks closer to visitors.

The dark color of the tank walls, combined with gravel and new lighting, will make the water look dramatically deeper and more mysterious by shading the area where the walls meet the floor, said Mark Donovan, the aquarium's senior director of exhibits and design.

The shark tank itself will also see six new species of coral, sculpted or cast from existing or dead coral.

The aquarium will reacclimate a half-dozen large sharks into the tank by Thanksgiving, with the number increasing to 10 or 12 by Dec. 25, according to Dr. Chris Andrews, the aquarium's senior director of biological programs. The aquarium will also acquire .. two Caribbean lemon sharks for the new exhibit.

Before the shark exhibit closed last year, the tank housed 13 sharks. While engineers and workers repaired the tanks, some of the sharks, all of which are endangered, were released into the ocean; some were farmed out to the Norwalk Maritime Center in Norwalk, Conn., for holding; and some were housed at a Fells Point warehouse outfitted with fiberglass holding tanks.

The warehouse will now be used for breeding other types of fish, according to Mr. Donovan, the aquarium's senior director of exhibits and design.

Dr. Andrews also said he would be traversing the Atlantic coast next year in search of more sandbar sharks.

The new coral reef exhibit will showcase more than 14,000 square feet of the artificial coral, and will serve as home to various and sundry tropical fish. The coral is representative of reef life indigenous to the Caribbean Sea.

Visitors can watch video and audio multimedia presentations on conservation projects in the Caribbean, and the "Action Station" will provide visitors with the names and addresses of conservation agencies. Another exhibit will record visitors' messages on conservation and send them to legislators.

"We hope we can excite visitors and then talk about conservation, too," said Dr. Andrews.

The aquarium gets about 1.5 million visitors every year, but since the closing of the Open Ocean tanks last year, officials said, attendance to the aquarium had dropped by some 100,000 visitors. If the return of the aquarium's flagship exhibition doesn't bring them all back, it will at least draw 11-year-old Jeremy Dembrey of York, Pa., back.

"I really wanted to see the sharks," says the wide-eyed Jeremy, visiting yesterday on a field trip. "If they're not here now, where can they be? Back in the ocean? Will they come back?"

The expanded exhibits will not raise admission prices, according to Elizabeth Malis, the aquarium's public relations coordinator.

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