Overhaul, new exhibit planned for National Aquarium

A rendering of the underwater viewing area of the National Aquarium's new Blacktip Reef exhibit, scheduled to open in summer 2013.
A rendering of the underwater viewing area of the National Aquarium's new Blacktip Reef exhibit, scheduled to open in summer 2013. (Courtesy of the National Aquarium)

A planned $12.5 million coral reef exhibit will be the first step toward a rejuvenated National Aquarium, officials said this week.

The Wings in the Water exhibit, the centerpiece of the Pier 3 Pavilion and a home for rays, sharks and other large fish, will be turned into what officials are calling Blacktip Reef. The replica of an Indo-Pacific Coral Reef — thinkAustralia'sGreat Barrier Reef, though much smaller — it will be home to a school of more than a dozen sharks, plus other creatures that call such habitats home.

"Almost all of the species in the exhibit will be animal species that people have not seen here at the National Aquarium" said aquarium CEO John Racanelli. He called construction of the Blacktip Reef — so named for the blacktip reef sharks that will be the dominant species there — "the first [project] in a multi-year program to renew and refresh exhibits."

The huge tank that houses Wings in the Water, which has changed little since the aquarium opened in 1981, will be closed near the end of this month, officials said, with the animals either being moved within the aquarium or being sent to new homes in Georgia, Tennessee and South Carolina. Officials project that the Blacktip Reef exhibit will open in summer 2013.

When completed, the Blacktip Reef will boast several improvements — most of which will improve visitors' ability to view the animals. On the top level, where the public looks down onto the reef, clear panels on viewing platforms will replace opaque barriers, and one platform that juts over the tank will be trimmed back. On the lower level, a "bubble" extending about four feet into the tank will enable visitors to essentially walk into the reef, surrounded on three sides by water and the creatures living therein.

"You're sort-of transferred into their world," Jack Cover, the aquarium's general curator, said of the experience of walking into the bubble. "You're seeing it from their viewpoint."

Visitors will see a far more diverse habitat in the Blacktip Reef than they did in the Wings in the Water exhibit, Cover said. In addition to the blacktip sharks, the reef exhibit will be home to reticulated whiptail rays, ornate wobbegong sharks and many other species.

"There's a lot going on in a reef," Cover said. "It's kind of like the Grand Central Station of the ocean, really an amazing environment."

Roughly two-thirds of the project's cost will be paid with money from capital campaigns, as well as operating funds left over from previous years, said Tim Pula, project lead for Blacktip Reef and the aquarium's senior director of capital planning. The remaining one-third will come from state and local governments, he said.

Of the animals living in Wings in the Water, three crowd pleasers — Calypso, a 400-pund green sea turtle, and zebra sharks Zeke and Zoe — will be moved into Blacktip Reef upon its completion. Others, including the bonnethead sharks, hogfish and tarpon, will be relocated to the aquarium's Atlantic Coral Reef exhibit. The barracuda and cownose, southern and roughtail rays will be sent to new homes in other aquariums.

Having endured three decades of wear and tear, much of the aquarium's infrastructure is in line for replacement or rehabilitation, officials said. In considering what to do with the quarter-million-gallon tank, which needed a new lining, a new filter and the replacement of some decaying concrete, the decision was made to go beyond simply rehabbing what was there.

"If we're going to clean it, let's not simply do repairs to the structure, plus waterproofing and replacing the life-support system," said Pula. "We just figured: Let's replace the whole thing. It's time to do that, anyway."

While officials hope to have the new exhibit ready in a year, they warn that the full scope of the renovation won't be known until the tank is drained and the concrete inspected.

This marks the aquarium's first major capital improvement since the opening of the $74.6 million "Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes" expansion in 2005.

The aquarium remains one of Baltimore's most popular tourist attractions, with some 1.4 million visitors in 2011 — about the same as the previous year, officials said. Reimagining exhibits helps to keep interest high, Racanelli said, And the work will enable the aquarium to install the most modern, up-to-date equipment available.

"You're never done in this business," he said. "With changes like this, we're able to employ new technologies that make the exhibit more interesting, more exciting and more educational, more of a learning experience."


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