Seahorse exhibit going global

Move: The collection -- one of the National Aquarium's biggest draws -- is headed for Italy, widening the Baltimore facility's international profile.

December 29, 2003|By June Arney | June Arney,SUN STAFF

Over the past 33 months, more than 4 million visitors have trooped to the National Aquarium in Baltimore's Inner Harbor and paid more than $10 million to see one of the most successful aquarium exhibits ever staged in the United States.

Within the half-light of the exhibit drift rare, leafy seadragons that look like so much finely filigreed seaweed, and weedies -- Seuss-like creatures with long snouts and fairy-like fans that propel them through the water. Some of the world's tiniest and biggest seahorses swim in this largest collection of such creatures ever assembled -- 18 exotic species from around the world.

On Sunday, the doors will close on Seahorses: Beyond Imagination, but the exhibit, which cost $1.2 million to create, will not die.

Instead, 400 delicate seahorses and pipefish will make a 48-hour journey by commercial jet and truck, packed in plastic bags, to start a new life in an Italian resort town at a new aquarium called Oltremare or "beyond the ocean."

Oltremare's managers plan to use the exhibit as the crown jewel of the facility that is set to open this summer on the Adriatic Sea.

For the National Aquarium, the seahorses are already a landmark success story.

Developed with the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, which opened its seahorse exhibit about a year after Baltimore's, the production has paid off with economic and environmental benefits.

The seahorses have provided a major boost to National Aquarium attendance.

The aquarium's seahorse breeding lab, established to support the exhibit and seahorse research, has shipped 750 of the creatures to 27 institutions around the world since the exhibit opened in April 2001.

The Italians will pay $400,000 to lease the show for four years, with an option to buy.

The hometown success of the seahorses is undeniable.

Routinely, 25 percent to 30 percent of visitors have identified the seahorses as the reason they visited the National Aquarium; the same was true for an earlier innovative jellyfish program.

Among Marylanders, those statistics rise as high as 45 percent, said Lyn Frankel, the aquarium's senior director of marketing.

She estimates that the seahorses' net revenue has been $10 million over the three years -- about a third of the aquarium's operating expenses for a single year. The aquarium's total annual revenue is about $30 million.

Fundamental to the aquarium's continued success is keeping things interesting for visitors.

In April, the aquarium launches Play! -- a dolphin show that boasts more audience participation, jumps and leaps and a focus on how dolphins learn and play. A permanent Australia exhibit opens in spring 2005.

The aquarium is planning its next changing attraction -- a major children's interactive exhibit, which is scheduled for 2007. An addition to the aquarium under construction will triple the space for changing exhibits when it opens in 2005, Frankel said.

"We see a world market for us, not just an American market," said Mark Donovan, the National Aquarium's senior director of exhibits and design. "We think this is truly a leadership role that we've struck, not just in the area of exhibitory but in the provision of services. We see it as a template for a full range of conservation services that connect people to wildlife. This is at the heart of our mission."

Aquarium experts agree that the seahorses' arrival in Riccione, Italy, will mark a significant milestone.

"This does seem to be the first time that an exhibit is being sent internationally," said Jane C. Ballentine, a spokeswoman for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. "This was born and bred in Baltimore. It's going to Italy to a whole new crowd. I think that's really significant on not only the science and education level, but it's also a great public relations opportunity."

Sending the seahorses to Italy meshes with the National Aquarium's recently announced goal of becoming a major player in aquarium and conservation education around the world.

The first evidence of the new strategy appeared closer to home in September, when the National Aquarium in Baltimore assumed operating control of the National Aquarium in Washington.

"Our goal is to be the global leader in advancing knowledge and stewardship for the aquatic world," said Frankel. "We think by communicating the magic and wonder to people that it creates an emotional connection."

Jorge Gomezjurado, the National Aquarium's senior aquarist and fish breeding specialist, will be at Oltremare when the seahorses touch down half a world away, ensuring that their acclimation to their new tanks goes smoothly.

But before the trip, aquarium staff will train their Italian counterparts on animal husbandry and medical issues. And the National Aquarium will help procure some of the animals, because not all them are being shipped from Baltimore."

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