Baltimore aquarium welcomes Washington refugees

The new giant Pacific octopus at the National Aquarium in Baltimore had a rough Monday morning commute.

Before he even got on the road, he turned from pink to dark red as he was placed into a plastic bag full of water, then into a white plastic foam container and cardboard box marked "Live Fish" for his trip to Baltimore from the smaller National Aquarium in downtown Washington, which closed forever last week to make room for building renovations.

Then there was the breakdown. The panel truck hauling the first of 1,700 animals that will be moved to Baltimore in the next several months lost power and had to pull over in an IKEA parking lot in College Park. The nearly 10-pound octopus — as yet unnamed — was carried the last leg of its journey to a new home by two Baltimore aquarium staffers driving a white Toyota van.

By the time he arrived at the Inner Harbor hours later, he had turned a ghostly white.

About 10 reporters, videographers and photographers crowded into a back room of the aquarium on the third floor for the octopus unwrapping. He was the star of the day, as the two sister aquariums began a great fish migration that's been planned for months.

On Monday, 38 animals of 17 species were moved, among 2,500 creatures being transferred to about seven other aquariums from Washington, as the space there is being turned into a basement walkway between the Department of Commerce building, where the aquarium has been housed since 1932, and the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

"The legacy of the classic National Aquarium lives on in Baltimore," said John Racanelli, the organization's president and CEO. "It's wonderful to be able to continue to educate and delight our guests in Baltimore" with the new animals.

The octopus arrived first in Baltimore on Monday afternoon in the van, along with seven plumose anemones and a 4-foot-long gray wolf eel.

No one seemed very interested in those, though, despite the wolf eel's striking resemblance to the Muppet named Statler, one of the two old men in the theater balcony known for making snide comments. Plumose anemones look rather like a pale aquatic cross between a mushroom and a stalk of broccoli.

The great Pacific octopus is known not only for its stunningly creepy appearance but also its intelligence, and for changing the texture of its skin and its color to blend in with surroundings and, evidently, to register mood.

"You can tell he's very stressed, he's not happy," said aquarist Katie Webster, looking down into a gray plastic garbage pail that contained about two feet of water and the octopus, which was scarcely moving but for the rhythmic puffing up and down of its pale head, which contains most of its major organs.

The stillness and deathly pallor, she said, were signs of an unhappy octopus.

"I wouldn't be [happy] either if I was in a bucket and my water temperature was changing," Webster said. She took digital thermometer measurements every few minutes and dumped small buckets of 51.5-degree water into the pail from a 1,300-gallon tank, trying to cool the octopus.

At that moment, the octopus's water was still close to 54. A nice serving temperature for chardonnay, but not in this cephalopod's comfort zone of 49 to 52.

The 32-year-old Baltimore aquarium and the Washington attraction joined forces in 2003, but the Baltimore site has long overshadowed the one in Washington in numbers of animals and visitors. In 2012, Baltimore drew all but about 100,000 of the 1.5-million visitors to the two sites, and is home to 16,000 animals, not all on exhibit at once.

A National Aquarium task force has begun work on finding another spot in Washington, where there's been an aquarium since 1885.

Aquarium spokeswoman Kate Hendrickson said that after quarantine at the care center in Fells Point, the 1,700 new animals will go into current exhibits or holding spaces out of public view. She said some of the species arriving will be new to Baltimore, including a loggerhead sea turtle, an impressive creature that can grow to more than a couple of hundred pounds.

The great Pacific octopus that arrived on Monday is not the first in Baltimore.

Once he was moved into his 1,300-gallon tank in the back room, he will begin a mostly private existence. He might have been all over local TV Monday night, but soon he'll be relegated to the role of octopus understudy.

He'll play second fiddle to Cordelia, the 8-pound giant Pacific octopus who has been at the National Aquarium in Baltimore for four months and is on exhibit on the third floor. She's a year old and "very feisty," said Webster, her caretaker.

"She definitely has a personality to her," Webster said. "Some days she's more crabby, more on the aggressive side."

As octopi prefer to be alone, Webster said these two will not be displayed together. The new octopus would play understudy in case something happened to Cordelia, who is younger than the new one, who is between 1 and 2 years old.

Jay Bradley, curator in Washington, could not vouch for the new octopus' temperament. He said the packing on Monday morning went smoothly enough, even though the creature did turn pink to dark red a possible sign of irritation when Bradley and two staff members netted him and bagged him in water.

"It went pretty well," he said. "It wasn't arms all over the place."

Webster said she was enthusiastic about getting to know this octopus, who was beginning to respond more actively to her touch with his tentacles after the cameras packed up and left.

"He's going to be very active," she said. "Very crabby and a lot of fun to work with."

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