Raising the Sand Bar
A look into the Aquarium’s newly re-minted Open Sea gallery.
Thursday, June 30, 2011
On a huge circular touch screen, visitors tap a tiny image of zooplankton and it swells in size, ready to be spun with a flick of a finger for 360-degree study of spiny antennae and whip-like flagellums.
Further along, in the freshly glowing Open Sea supertank, some 9,000 sardines – an unprecedented (and growing) number to have captive in one place – move with snap-neck suddenness and a flash of psychedelic silver.
In a newly enriched exhibit area that follows, 18-to-20-inch baby sea turtles stroke smoothly through the water while, across the way, juvenile tufted puffins preen through striking plumage and train their little bright orange beaks toward an enraptured audience.
The remade Outer Bay galleries at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, now reborn as The Open Sea to highlight the great travelers of the oceans, plankton included, are a trip. But the trip-within-the-trip, at least for the myriad marine creatures and human specialists involved in remodeling, might have them beat.
New transport tanks were developed to shuttle the hammerhead sharks to the Aquarium’s massive Marina facility. Relocating hulking blue fin by the dozen isn’t as simple as sushi take-out. The sun fish, aka mola mola, wasn’t so tricky to shift over to the neighboring Tuna Research and Conservation Center when it was a slim 100 pounds, but getting the awkward, now-350-plus pounder back more than a year later, even with a crane, was enough to make for what one insider modestly calls “a nervous time for the husbandry team.”
But despite the new turtles and puffins, the re-do is more reflective of opportunism than a wildly ambitious revisioning: The inspiration for change was to drain the 1 million-gallon main tank to swap out tiles that were breaking off and finding their way into sea turtle stomachs. At that point it only made sense to spiff up the surrounding stuff.
“It’s not part of our explicit mission,” Aquarium spokesman Ken Peterson says, “but we do want to remain the world’s best aquarium, and you can’t do that if you don’t refresh and reinvent, if you aren’t pushing the envelope.”
As a result, while the new walls of the tank better suggest the open ocean with a surreal efficacy and enhanced lighting will set off the mahi mahi’s wildly changing colors when they feed, the cumulative effect will be more raised eyebrow than dropped jaw.
Still, that will mean a special setting to introduce new stars (deep-sea jellies and sandbar sharks) and returning favorites (sea turtles and sunfish).
But even with all these charismatic residents getting a new spotlight, there is one visitor whose popularity, and infamy, dwarfs all others’.
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White sharks are notoriously powerful. But in aquarium circles, they’re also famously finicky: Despite numerous attempts to hold them alive in captivity, over the course of decades, none had succeeded for more than 16 days.
Until 2004, when Monterey Bay Aquarium made history by managing to keep a young female white happy in the Outer Bay tank for more than six months. Since then, the Aquarium’s Juvenile White Shark Project has caught, exhibited and released four more.
This fall, they’re going for their sixth in an ongoing mission to learn more about the ocean’s top predators, and inspire their protection.
Rather than capturing an adult, which is more likely to get stressed in a tank, the field team will look for juveniles around 3-5 months old, roughly 5 feet long and 60 pounds. The perfect specimen, perhaps surfacing as a SoCal halibut fisherman’s bycatch, will travel to the Aquarium in a 3,200-gallon “tunabago” (a torpedo-like pod designed by the husbandry team).
“We can’t guarantee we’ll have an animal,” the Aquarium’s Karen Jeffries says. “We always say, ‘We hope.’”
The team’s track record is promising. The Aquarium’s five white shark guests have stayed for as little as 11 days (she wasn’t feeding well) to 198 days (a record stay). After their release back into the wild, electronic tags track their movement. Most of them appear to have thrived, Jeffries says, but last year’s white was killed in a Mexican fisherman’s net four months after her release. Her legacy, however, lives on.
In early June the Aquarium released Project White Shark, a 40-page book by Peterson, detailing nine years of research. A 15-minute movie, screening three times a day in the Aquarium’s auditorium, brings that story to life, while the Aquarium’s biggest and best exhibit finds new life around the corner.
THE OPEN SEA launches Saturday, July 2, and is free with admission at Monterey Bay Aquarium, 880 Cannery Row, Monterey. For more on Project White Shark, visit www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/whiteshark.aspx.