Amazon wildlife here to stay

Aquarium: A collection of exotic creatures comes to Baltimore for the attractions first permanent exhibit in nine years.

February 23, 2000|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Baby-sitting a 17-foot-long green anaconda is not part of Ken Majkas regular job description, but thats exactly what the creative director for a Baltimore advertising agency found himself doing last weekend during the filming of a commercial for the National Aquarium.

My job at one point was to make sure the anaconda didnt escape, said Majka, of Richardson, Myers & Donofrio Inc., who wrote the spot that will launch the aquariums Amazon River Forest exhibit. I was actually assigned that.

Luckily, the 185-pound reptile made no move to bolt for freedom, Majka said.

The anaconda, and a collection of exotic and often vibrantly colored creatures -- Caimans, white spotted stingrays and red-bellied piranhas -- are all part of the aquariums first permanent exhibit to open in nine years. The last permanent exhibit was the marine mammal pavilion.

The $3 million exhibit, scheduled to debut March 3, is a re-creation of an Amazon River tributary and the surrounding forest that floods for about half the year. The worlds smallest monkey, a pygmy marmoset, lives in the vines and limbs overhead -- a stark contrast to the anaconda, among the worlds largest snakes, which swims the waters below. Here, too, are pink-toed tarantulas, Brazil-nut poison-dart frogs and eartheaters, a kind of fish that digs through the substrate looking for insects and worms.

Many of the creatures were collected by the aquarium staff from the rain forests of South America, others were acquired from aquariums or zoos in the United States, but two red-tailed catfish came from just a few blocks away -- donated by the Flamingo Lounge, an adult entertainment club.

Visitors will travel along a simulated 57-foot stretch of the Amazon in a trek through the heart of the jungle. The exhibit contains more than 40 species of fish. Here, within the tangled roots and lush vegetation, are creatures so rare that some have not yet been identified, aquarium officials said.

It has a quiet therapeutic value to it, Majka said. Its like being on another planet.

The commercials will begin airing next month in Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia and southeastern Pennsylvania. Print versions will run in the Baltimore and Washington markets. Aquarium officials declined to reveal the cost of the campaign.

Filming at the aquarium took about 35 hours and entailed a diver using an underwater camera with 170 pounds of waterproof housing.

I think it was one of the toughest things Ive ever done, Majka said. It involved making sure no animals were upset or stressed. The birds were skittish, and every time we opened the exhibit, there was the possibility of them escaping.

The 30-second commercial will have the feel of a movie trailer with dramatic close-ups of the animals, ending with a reverse angle of two children outside the glass, Majka said. A voice-over will tell viewers: When the rains come -- and river begins to swallow the jungle, the world turns upside down. And hundreds of incredible, never-before-seen creatures suddenly rise to the top.

Aquarium officials hope the exhibit will help boost the number of visitors from the current 1.65 million annually to at least 1.67 million this year. The exhibit complements the aquariums rooftop South American Rain Forest Exhibit, which shows visitors what the canopy of the forest is like.

The exhibit includes an interactive component where people learn about the rain forest and how they can help preserve it.

We want people to come in and have a wonderful time and marvel at the exhibit, said Dave Pittenger, executive director of the aquarium. But the next step is to see what changes they can make in their own lives to make a difference.

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