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Baltimore aquarium's central tank to get makeover

Wednesday - 8/1/2012, 9:44am  ET

By MARIA ZILBERMAN
The Daily Record of Baltimore

BALTIMORE (AP) - The heart of the National Aquarium in Baltimore is getting a $12.5 million makeover as officials prepare to drain the 260,000-gallon centerpiece tank after Labor Day.

The "Blacktip Reef" exhibit, which is slated to open in summer 2013 and replicates an Indo-Pacific reef, will replace the aquarium's central "Wings in the Water" exhibit. It is the largest renovation to take place at the 31-year-old facility since the opening of the $74.6 million Australia exhibit in late 2005.

Two-thirds of the money came from the aquarium's funds, while the rest came from the state and city. The aquarium received $2.5 million from the state for capital improvements.

Two reasons are behind the renovations: A need to keep exhibits fresh for guests, and a need to repair an aging facility, said Tim Pula, senior director of capital planning and project lead for the new exhibit.

"The concrete tank is 30 years old. We were aware of concrete decay in some areas and we knew we needed to repair that," he said.

Instead of just fixing the filtration and concrete decay _ some of which couldn't be reached or accurately assessed without draining the tank _ the decision was made in late 2010 to revamp the exhibit, he said.

The new exhibit will feature about 2,700 replicated coral pieces and a bubble window _ a viewing space that curves out into the tank and allows guests to stand "inside" the tank on an extended lip _ as well as glass and steel, rather than concrete, barriers.

A staircase will be added beside the first level's escalator.

Whiting-Turner of Towson is the contractor for the project and Cambridge Seven Associates is the architecture firm that designed the space. McLaren Engineering Group is the structural engineer, Baltimore-based Kovacs, Whitney & Associates Inc. will do the mechanical and electrical engineering, and Flux Studio is the lighting consultant.

At least 15 species of aquatic life will be in the tank, including 20 to 25 blacktip reef sharks, the exhibit's namesake.

A sleek and fast- moving shark with black tips on its fins and tail, the species is the "Ferrari of the sharks" and can grow up to six feet in length, said Jack Cover, general curator for the aquarium.

Work on the tank will begin Sept. 4, but the aquarium has already started making changes behind the scenes, replacing the aging pumps and bringing in some of the blacktip sharks, which are coming from Australia and being housed in quarantine.

After Labor Day, the aquarium's 400-pound green sea turtle, named Calypso, and zebra sharks will be housed out of sight from visitors, in the aquarium's animal care center in Fells Point. They'll move to the new exhibit next summer.

Some other animals in the "Wings in the Water" exhibit will be relocated to the Atlantic Coral Reef exhibit, while others will take much bigger leaps to the Georgia Aquarium, Tennessee Aquarium and Ripley's Aquarium in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

"One of the reasons it's such an important additional is it's also going to allow us to focus on how people can personally take action for conservation, and we're using a very iconic species _ the shark _ which is not something people typically expect needs help from humans," said John C. Racanelli, CEO of the National Aquarium Institute.

But overfishing and accidental catching of sharks, coupled with the species' slow reproduction cycle, have caused a risk, he said.

"Sharks represent something of a canary in the coal mine, and the canary is not doing so well globally," Racanelli said.

The renovation is the first piece of a 10-year mission to expand and improve the aquarium, he said.

Projects for the next five years include adding more family friendly and interactive features to exhibits and completely remaking the second, third and fourth floors of the original Pier 3 pavilion.

In May, the aquarium's dolphin amphitheater underwent a $250,000 renovation. The space previously held 1,200 people and offered three to four 30-minute shows per day. The redesigned space holds 900 people and is open all day.

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Information from: The Daily Record of Baltimore, http://www.mddailyrecord.com


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