A dozen sharks were spied in Baltimore waters Monday. Their arrival was greeted with smiles and much applause.
The first of 20 blacktip reef sharks that will be calling Baltimore's National Aquarium home were released into their new digs Monday. The sharks are the centerpiece of the aquarium's $13 million Blacktip Reef exhibit, a re-creation of a piece of Australia's Great Barrier Reef that replaces the popular multi-level Wings in the Water exhibit of rays.
The remaining eight sharks, which are distinguished by the dark black coloring on the tips of their fins, will be released Tuesday.
"This is a really gorgeous species of shark," said Jack Cover, the aquarium's general curator, as the first shark was released into the water shortly after 10:30 a.m. Admitting that sharks -- as a whole -- are in need of an image upgrade and better P.R., Cover added, "We're trying to get people away from the myths and assumptions of the movie 'Jaws.'"
The blacktip reef exhibit, complete with 265,000 gallons of carefully maintained saltwater, artfully sculpted mounds of imitation sea coral (the real stuff is too fragile, too rare and too demanding), about 70 species of happily intermingling fish and one very contented sea turtle, should take that effort a long way.
Certainly, the sharks proved a big hit with the public Monday. As each was released into the water -- nothing fancy, just a couple of guys with nets scooping them out of a holding tank and gently easing them into their new home -- spectators applauded and snapped pictures with their phones and cameras. There was no John Williams music, no ominous bass notes playing in the background, just the delighted squeals of children who thought the newly released predators were pretty awesome.
"This is ... much more realistic than the old rays tank," said Mark Baummer of Cockeysville, whose 2-year-old daughter, Lucy, stood with her nose pressed to the glass, delighted by the fish swimming by. "It's really nice to be able to see them like this. This is much more realistic than a concrete pool."
Agreed 6-year-old Abigail Griggs, "They look really cool."
Although Monday's releases marked the arrival of the new exhibit's premier attraction, it has already been open to the public for several weeks. Calypso, the aquarium's resident sea turtle for some 12 years, has been living there since early July. More than 50 species of fish have been introduced since then; by the time of the reef's grand opening, tentatively scheduled for Aug. 8, some 70 species of fish will call the exhibit home.
"It's been a long labor of love," said aquarium CEO John Racanelli. "We are very excited about getting the sharks into the exhibit."
Spanning five levels of the 32-year-old Inner Harbor attraction, the Blacktip Reef exhibit offers myriad viewing opportunities. Visitors can look down on the imitation reef and its inhabitants from varying heights.
Below ground level, four clear acrylic windows offer views under the waterline; one curved viewing area, some 20 feet wide, practically encircles visitors, enabling them to feel immersed in the aquatic habitat without having to put on scuba gear.
Those four-inch-thick windows provided the best views of the sharks Monday, as they swam effortlessly from point-to-point along the artificial reef, their heads and tails swaying rhythmically from side to side. Predators in the wild, these captive sharks have gotten used to being fed chopped-up fish and squid, Cover said.
Although most of the fish in the tank would normally qualify as potential shark chow, none seemed panicked by their new reef-mates. In fact, schools of small blue-green chromis could be seen trailing the sharks, as though in awe of the new kid in town. Others, including regal-looking batfish and gaudily painted clown triggers, seemed barely to notice.
Cover, who has been overseeing the new exhibit since construction began late last summer, says the idea was to replicate a section of the Great Barrier Reef, one of the richest natural habitats, as closely as possible. "We're very proud of the fact that it's an authentic re-creation," he said. "The fish, the species of coral -- everything."
Aquarium officials had hoped to have the new exhibit ready earlier in the summer, but various delays -- including what Racanelli called a "vexing leak" -- pushed the opening to late July.
"We wanted to do things really right," Racanelli said. "We wanted to give all the animals a chance to find their place on the reef, rather than try to meet some artificial deadline."
The 20-30 rays that once lived in the aquarium's Wings in the Water exhibit have been redistributed to aquariums throughout the country, but their fans need not despair totally. Among animals still waiting to be released into the Blacktip Reef exhibit are three reticulated whiptail rays and two black-blotched fantail rays.
"There are going to be some spectacular rays in this exhibit," Cover promised.
While Wings in the Water was always popular, it didn't replicate the natural environment nearly as closely as the Blacktip Reef exhibit does, Cover said. And that preference for giving visitors an experience as close to the real world as possible is becoming increasingly popular at zoos and aquariums, said Debborah Luke, vice president of conservation and science for the Silver Spring-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The idea, she said, is to promote better stewardship of animals and their habitats.
"That way, viewers and guests can experience a little bit of what it's like out in the wild," she said. "That's important for education and conservation messaging, on how to help these animals in the wild."
Racanelli said the Blacktail Reef exhibit is the first of several new components planned for the aquarium; the next, he said, should be ready in early 2015. Although officials are still working on specifics, he said, it will focus on aquatic life in the Maryland region -- that is, in the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed or on the Atlantic shores.
The blacktip reef sharks, which can grow to six feet and have been known to live from 25-30 years, have been in Baltimore, at the aquarium's animal care center in Fells Point, for up to 18 months. Captured in the wild in Australia, under a government-monitored program, the fish have had to become acclimated to life in their new home. That includes getting used to the presence of divers, flashing lights (all those visitors with their cameras) and food that's provided for them at feeding stations within the exhibit (as opposed to having to hunt for prey).
About that hunting: Cover said the sharks may not totally abandon their wild ways and just might be tempted to go after one of their tank mates occasionally, But not to worry, he said.
"The fish are going to do what they do in the wild," he said. "They'll hide."
If you go
The "official" opening of the National Aquarium's Blacktip Reef exhibit is tentatively set for Aug. 8. The exhibit is already open to the public, however, and by the end of the day Tuesday, all the blacktip reef sharks and some 50 of the 70 other species of fish planned for the exhibit will already be calling it home.
When: July-August hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Thursday (closes 2 p.m. Aug. 5), 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday, 8:30 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday, 8:30 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday.
Where: National Aquarium, 501 E. Pratt St.
How much: $21.95-$34.95
Information: 410-576-3800 or aqua.org ___
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