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An 18-month effort to repair damaged tanks at the National Aquarium in Baltimore came to a successful conclusion yesterday as hundreds of schoolchildren, acting like schools of fish, became the first visitors to tour the refurbished Atlantic Coral Reef tank.

Board Chairman James A. Flick Jr. announced that the aquarium is just a few thousand dollars shy of reaching its goal of raising $24 million needed to pay for the repairs and build future exhibits.

The construction work is "a testimony to our resolve to remain a leader -- a world-class aquarium, exciting and vital, entertaining and educational," he told more than 300 people gathered for the opening ceremonies on Pier 3.

"After you tour the aquarium," he said, "I think you'll agree that it is even better than it was when we opened our doors in 1981."

In conjunction with the reef reopening, the aquarium launched Project ReefAction, a campaign to save living coral reefs that are endangered by pollution, boats and other threats.

"Today," Mr. Flick said, "we are making this pledge: We will teach the million-and-a-half people who visit us every year about the dangers facing living coral, and inspire them to work for their preservation."

Part of the campaign, a joint venture of the aquarium and the Nature Conservancy, is a "conservation parking meter" set up to collect nickels, dimes and quarters from visitors who want to help protect living coral.

A similar parking meter at the aquarium has raised nearly $180,000 to help save endangered rain forests.

The coral reef tank and a two-story Open Ocean shark tank were closed in October 1993 so contractors could repair damage caused by the corrosive effects of saltwater on the concrete and underlying steel structures.

The shark exhibit reopened last November. The coral reef exhibit took longer to complete because it was more elaborate and needed more attention from the fabricators, Exhibit Technologies Inc. of Littleton, Colo., and David L. Manwarren Corp. of Ontario, Calif.

The $24 million sought by the fund-raisers is as much as the original building on Pier 3 cost to build from 1979 to 1981. Of the nearly $24 million raised so far, $14 million went for tank repairs, $5 million went for a new ticketing system and other improvements in the complex, and $5 million will be set aside for future exhibits.

Mr. Flick described the newest exhibit as "the most accurate, most realistic reef ever fabricated," giving visitors "a diver's view."

Executive Director David Pittenger said he was particularly proud that the tanks were designed largely by aquarium staffers. They included former director Nicholas Brown, who guided the effort; Mark Donovan, senior director of exhibits and design; Valerie Chase, staff biologist; Bruce Hecker, curator of fishes; and Jack Hedden, production foreman. Barton Malow/Essex was the construction manager.

Coral reef festivities continue today and tomorrow from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

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