New England Aquarium set to reopen its centerpiece Caribbean Reef tank after $17 million makeover


This article by Jody Feinberg about the reopening of the Caribbean tank at the New England Aquarium appeared in The Patriot Ledger.

Steve Bailey could barely contain his enthusiasm as he watched yellow and silver French grunts face off and open their mouths to each other, revealing a reddish orange interior.

“The mouth display is a unique character behavior for the grunt,” said Bailey of Braintree, curator of fishes at the New England Aquarium. “It’s very bright and colorful and exactly what you would see if you were diving in the Caribbean.”

With the renovation complete, the Aquarium’s centerpiece giant ocean tank has transformed into a more vibrant recreation of a Caribbean reef. Not only do more and larger communities of species live there, but they are behaving more naturally and are easier to see. Call it a victory for the little fish, as well as for visitors.

“The tank has the feeling of being much larger and grander and gives this complex collections of fishes a better chance to succeed,” Bailey said. “I consider it one of the finest collections of Caribbean fishes. We have many that other aquariums would covet.”

The tank is part of a $17 million renovation that also includes new Caribbean sea life exhibits, as well as exhibits on the life cycle of lobsters and a shark nursery, where visitors can see baby sharks hatch from egg cases.

The 200,000 gallon tank – considered state of the art when the Aquarium opened in 1969 – now can reclaim that honor. It has 67 new acrylic windows, which are a foot taller and clearer than the original glass ones. The fabricated coral reef – made of 3,000 pieces – now allows unobstructed views across the tank and brings the coral up against the concrete columns. That allows visitors to see small fish move in and out of the corals, who formerly had been farther away and difficult to see.

“Now people are going to notice the smaller animals,” Bailey said. “The small fish want to be in the dark sometimes, so we’ve made coral mini habitats that draw fish close to the glass where people can see they are quite interesting.”

Until mid-April, the four-story Giant Ocean Tank was swathed in construction covering. For the past two months, the fish have been returned to the tank in stages, starting from the smallest to the largest. The sharks return next week, and the top deck reopens July 1 with dramatic changes to the viewing experience and the addition of new exhibits.

To Bailey, the ocean tank is a complex, soap-opera-like environment, where more than 140 species of fish establish their space. The tank has about 1,8000 new fish, 200 returning fish and 20 new species, collected during three trips to the Bahamas in February and March and quarantined at the aquarium’s Animal Care Center at the former Fore River Shipyard.

“None of this could have happened without Quincy,” said Tony LaCasse, director of media relations. “We needed a place to move the animals (during construction) and to build our collection.”

As Bailey peered through the glass, he watched about 200 small mouth grunt, who now behave differently since their numbers increased from 30.

“They’re much more bold,” Bailey said. “They’re roaming the reef in ways no one here has seen before. Seeing them realize their full potential is just a dream come true.”

He pointed out other new species: a 20-inch spotfin burrfish, a burly fish with a Muppet-like mouth and tiny spikes coming from its black and white skin, and an Atlantic guitar fish, which is flat like a skate but has a tail resembling a shark’s.

At the top of the tank, the green sea turtle Myrtle gently swam just below the surface of the 30-foot deep pool of water, occasionally lifting her head to breathe. She is much easier to see, especially for children, now that the circular wall is all windows, where formerly it was mostly concrete with four windows. And the new dome of LED lighting creates an ethereal underwater feeling.

Now accessible to wheelchairs thanks to a new elevator, the top of the tank also has new garden and moray eel exhibits as well as five other exhibits, part of the Yawkey Coral Reef Center. And the tank has a second platform for feedings and educational presentations.

Some people may be disappointed that the three 7-8 feet sand tiger sharks are gone. They have been replaced with eight 5-6 feet black nose and bonnet head sharks, which are native to the Caribbean.

“They are smaller and swifter and highly maneuverable,” Bailey said. “They will be very visible and look like they are masters of the reef, instead of just circling it.”

In Quincy, facilities director Barbara Bailey, who is married to Steve Bailey, has been training the sharks for target feeding. Visitors will be able to watch the divers feed the sharks and hear their commentary, thanks to the aquarium’s new technologies for educational presentations.

“When we tried underwater presentations before, they didn’t work because they sounded like Darth Vader,” Bailey said. “We’re hopeful this will make the experience more intimate and memorable for visitors.”

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