Jellies' Last Jam Aquarium crew makes sure moving day is just like the rest for star invertebrates, which go with the flow away from Baltimore.

January 06, 1998|By STEPHANIE SHAPIRO | STEPHANIE SHAPIRO,SUN STAFF

If they only had a brain, the other-worldly creatures might have sensed they were on their way out of town when the video monitors and fiber optics came down.

If they only had a heart, they might have felt a tad sad that their two-year idyll as stars of the National Aquarium's showcase exhibition "Jellyfish: Phantoms of the Deep" had come to an end.

But at the 6 p.m. closing time Sunday, the thousands of mesmerizing moon jellies, umbrella jellies, elegant jellies, East and West Coast sea nettles, lion's manes and upside-down jellies -- brainless, heartless and boneless all -- were none the wiser that it was time to move on. And after drifting for at least 650 million years now, what was another couple hundred miles?

Nor did the three-aquarium team that dismantled the enormously popular exhibit give the fragile invertebrates any reason to panic. In a meticulously planned, intensive process that began Sunday evening and concludes today, successive shifts of more than two dozen designers and aquarists removed the $500,000 exhibit and packed the jellyfish in plastic bags to be overnighted to their new homes.

Some are headed for a smaller two-year show at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, and others are headed back to the permanent exhibit at the New England Aquarium in Boston, from which they were originally leased.

The move of the jellyfish took place yesterday, in an operation that at times took on an ER urgency, even if it appeared as simple as carrying home a goldfish. Throughout, team members had to keep the sea creatures on life support -- happy at 55 degrees, away from the slice-and-dice water-circulation system and in bubbleless water.

The staff had to work swiftly. The jellies had only a 24-hour box life; after that, temperature changes threatened their lives.

In the process of packing, the tiny moon jellies, with minimal stings, were slurped and siphoned into boxes. Big moon jellies were scooped by hand and plopped into bags. But West and East Coast sea nettles, known for their nasty sting, were cautiously harvested from tanks and spilled into bags.

By noon yesterday, when the hubbub was over, the jellyfish were in 20 boxes that cost $6,000 to ship.

The exhibit breakdown began as soon as the last of the more than 3 million visitors to the exhibit left Sunday. A baker's dozen of aquarium staff divided into crews that tore down structures, scrubbed and sterilized the tanks and packed the jellies.

Mark Donovan, senior director of exhibits and design, was in charge of taking down the physical exhibit. He and his staff, wielding power tools and hammers, unscrewed portholes, dismantled video monitors, tore out the purply blue fiber-optic lighting that lined the walls and coiled them like eerie snakes on the ground.

The sound system, which for so long had broadcast cosmic New Age music for optimal jelly-gazing, was silent. Although the crew worked in near darkness, the exhibition's hypnotic aura of mystery drained quickly from the space. By late evening, the jellies' rippling slo-mo show became of marginal importance to the labor surrounding them.

Safety was the first concern of senior aquarist Stuart Keefer. "You could unplug the wrong thing, and the filtration system goes AWOL," Keefer said.

The jellies also depend on a circulation system that keeps them in perpetual circular motion and away from the skimmers, which draw water out of the tank and could slice the jellies to ribbons.

In the wild, jellies often live only a season, dying when water temperatures drop below survival levels. They live longer in captivity. (In this case, they had such perfect conditions most of the species reproduced constantly, providing the aquarium with a generous supply of backup jellies.)

Household equipment

After the design team came the aquarists from Baltimore, Boston and Chattanooga and their assistants, moving in with a pile of boxes outfitted with Styrofoam insulation and signs that said: "Handle with Care: Live Fish." They also had a large supply of industrial-strength plastic bags and rubber bands -- not exactly the high-tech contraptions you might imagine.

Senior aquarist Doug Allen worked with aide Deanna Scadden to pack the passel of moon jellies. Jellyfish are "very fragile, but in some other ways they are easier to ship than fish," Allen said. "You don't have to worry about the oxygen level." Jellies have slow respiration systems and require very low levels of oxygen.

He and Scadden fished from the tanks backstage, in the no-frills work space behind the exhibit. Allen climbed a ladder and with a net, corraled the jellies near the top of the tank and scooped them out, zillions at a time, with a 2,000-milliliter chemistry lab beaker.

He handed the beaker to Scadden, who dumped the contents, water and jellies, into the plastic bags, positioned in the boxes. The jellies continued to swirl as they had in their tanks, oblivious to their travel plans.

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