The continent of Australia is about as far from Maryland as one can get without leaving Earth altogether, the arid Australian Outback as different from the fertile Chesapeake Bay as two regions can be.
All of which makes the Outback an intriguing choice for the next major exhibit at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.
It promises to be the setting for an exotic array of creatures that have never been seen in an American aquarium. It also will reinforce the 20-year-old aquarium's stature as a global biopark capable of telling powerful stories about habitats around the world - and the need to protect them.
Executive director David Pittenger announced last week that an "Australian River Canyon" will be the centerpiece of a $40 million addition planned for construction on Pier 3 by 2005.
He said aquarium officials considered more than a dozen regions before focusing on a section of Kakadu National Park in the Outback. Other candidates included the Everglades, the coast of Oregon, the sea cliffs of Alaska, the Okefenokee Swamp and Western Maryland. But the Outback won support from the beginning, he said, because it would be dramatically different from anything else at the aquarium.
Northern Australia is a dry environment that gets monsoon-like downpours that flood river beds. It's a sharp contrast to the lush environments of equatorial South America or Africa. Creatures would include crocodiles, turtles, bats, snakes and Lorakeet parrots, which are brilliant blue, red and green and travel in flocks.
"This will be the signature exhibit in the new building," he said. "We think people will react very strongly to it." Americans have a fascination with Australia, Pittenger said. "I don't know if it's the frontier wilderness or the similarity in our backgrounds, but there's a lot of curiosity."
The choice of the Australia River Canyon habitat also provides a chance to exhibit creatures that would not be redundant with those at the Baltimore Zoo.
"We think of ourselves as a biopark, in that we have terrestrial and aquatic animals," Pittenger said. "We want exhibits that, one, people will enjoy and react well to, and, two, have the potential for a strong conservation message."
Pittenger said aquarium officials were considering the Outback well before the "Survivor II" TV series aired this spring. They settled on it only after they were sure they could not only re-create the environment of the Kakadu National Park but exhibit a representative sample of the creatures there.
Planned for construction just north of the aquarium's original building on Pier 3, the expansion will be the first major addition to the Inner Harbor attraction since the Marine Mammal Pavilion opened 11 years ago. It will contain a cafe, gift shop, space for changing exhibits and a new entry to the rest of the aquarium.
The architect is Chermayeff, Sollogub and Poole, a Boston-based firm whose principals were all members of Cambridge Seven Associates, the firm that designed the original aquarium building. They are working closely with the aquarium's design experts, Mark Seeley and Mark Donovan.
A preliminary scale model of the proposed expansion indicated that the building would have the same architectural vocabulary as the 1981 building, including a concrete base and pyramidal glass roofs. Now that the centerpiece exhibit has been selected, aquarium officials say, the design may be modified significantly.
One feature of the River Canyon exhibit will be a 40-foot-tall waterfall that re-creates one at Kakadu National Park. The exhibit also will tell the story of the Aboriginal people of Australia and how they live off the land.
The $40 million addition is part of a multi-year, $88.6 million master plan. In a presentation last week to the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, Pittenger said he expects $32 million to come from public sources and $56.6 million from private partners.
Other elements of the master plan include moving the outdoor seal pool from Pier 3 to the William Donald Schaefer Plaza area on Pier 4, creation of a children's touch pool and "family discovery center" on Pier 4, building an area for changing exhibits on Pier 4 and revamping some existing exhibits. Once the expansion is complete, the aquarium hopes to draw 2 million visitors a year, up from an average of 1.6 million at present.
Pittenger also said the aquarium is working with the city planning and public works departments to create an Aquatic Life Center on the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River. The idea is to redevelop an underused, eight-acre parcel near the north end of the Hanover Street Bridge as a setting for the aquarium's off-site animal care center, now based in Fells Point, and its marine animal rescue program. The aquarium also wants to use part of the shoreline as a wetlands restoration site, with a boardwalk for wildlife observation.
Charles Street meeting
A proposal to designate Charles Street in Baltimore and Baltimore County as a National Scenic Byway will be the subject of a public meeting at 7 p.m. today at the Cathedral Church of the Incarnation, N. Charles Street and University Parkway.
Baltimore's planning and preservation commissions, Baltimore County's planning department and the Maryland State Highway Administration are sponsors of the meeting. They want to prepare a comprehensive plan for Charles Street and apply for it to be designated a National Scenic Byway, which would allow the city to apply for federal funds to improve it.