Pacific Panorama

TIMES SCIENCE WRITER

Moving sluggishly along the sea floor, a school of scuba divers scoured the reef off the Palos Verdes Peninsula for specimens to round out an exotic collection of about 10,000 sea creatures at the new Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach.

Numbed by the 57-degree water several hundred yards off Long Point, buffeted by the tidal surge and almost blinded in the murk 35 feet below the surface, the five divers patiently gathered 18 mottled purple sea hares, eight spiny white urchins and six rocks ripe with strawberry anemones.

A curious sea lion trailed behind these ungainly bottom feeders, a proprietary eye trained on the specimen basket.

From dozens of such collection dives in recent months and with donations from other aquariums and marine mammal rescue groups, Long Beach aquarist Kenneth Yates has assembled more than 550 species of sea life. The aggregation ranges from pastel parrot fish and butterfly tangs to leopard sharks, sea lions, otters, lethal scorpion fish and endangered eastern Pacific green sea turtles.

The $117-million aquarium, which opens June 20, is designed to offer a view of some of the diversity of aquatic life in the Pacific--the world's largest and most complex body of water.

The results of the morning collection dive will enliven the artificial reefs and sandy sea floors of dozens of exhibits encompassing Pacific Ocean habitats from the Bering Sea and Sea of Japan in the north to the Gulf of California to the south, and as far west as the island of Palau in Micronesia.

"The Los Angeles area is one of the last big metropolitan areas that does not have a large aquarium, yet it is a very ocean-oriented culture," Yates said.

"The Pacific is the most fascinating and diverse ocean in the world," he said. "It was a natural."

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The Aquarium of the Pacific is the newest in what oceanographers and marine experts call an unprecedented boom in aquarium construction.

In the past decade, the number of large aquariums in the United States has almost doubled, from 17 to 30, and attendance has grown from about 23 million visitors in 1989 to more than 36 million last year.

In California, the five-acre Long Beach waterside facility joins, to the south, SeaWorld in San Diego and the new Stephen K. Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla. To the north is the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which recently unveiled a new $57-million wing that includes a 1-million-gallon indoor ocean tank with a 57-foot viewing window, which is the largest in the world.

Another 30 major U.S. aquariums are under development or in the preliminary planning stages. They include a proposed $90-million aquarium at the California Science Center in Los Angeles' Exposition Park and a $50-million facility in Santa Barbara.

Major aquarium projects also are underway from Sydney, Australia, to Cape Town, South Africa, and from Malacca, Malaysia, to Guangzhou, China.

Indeed, to maintain its claim as the world's largest, the 65-year-old Shedd Aquarium in Chicago has spent $45 million in the past decade and plans to spend $65 million more on new exhibits in the next three years, said its president and chief executive officer, Ted Beattie.

"I wish I knew what the limit to growth was," he said. "There are a lot of aquariums being built, and there probably is a saturation point at some point. Every community has to be careful about that."

The developers of the Long Beach aquarium predict that their facility will have 1.6 million visitors in its first year, but they need no reminders about the precarious viability of large public aquarium projects.

As the collection team surfaced off Long Point on a recent morning, the divers could easily see the weathered holding tanks of Marineland of the Pacific, which closed its doors more than a decade ago, looming above the breakers on the rocky bluffs.

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For a generation that often gets no closer to nature than the Discovery Channel, aquariums have become artful show windows on the wild.

Their growing popularity is spurred in part by the entertainment tastes of urban eco-tourists, experts say, but also by a deepening awareness of the fragility and ill health of the world's oceans.

"Most people are never going to see large ocean fish swimming in their natural habitat unless they go to these facilities," said Michael Hutchin, director of conservation and science for the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn. in Bethesda, Md.

Waikiki Aquarium director Bruce A. Carlson at the University of Hawaii, who oversees an array of about 2,000 specimens from 350 marine species, said wildlife collections help foster a much-needed sense of connection with all life forms.

"We are biological animals. When we come to an aquarium, there is a real feel of kinship with another being," he said. "There is a huge fascination with being able to see up close the huge diversity of life on this planet."

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Yates and his colleagues at Long Beach have done their best to highlight the diversity of the Pacific.

The architects--the Los Angeles office of Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum working with the San Francisco firm of Esherick Homsey Dodge & Davis--have designed a curving, wave-like building, encompassing 157,000 square feet. It is organized around three major theme areas, with 17 major habitats and 30 smaller exhibits:

* The tropical Pacific hall features a 350,000-gallon reef habitat with more than 1,000 fish, including black-tip reef sharks, gray reef sharks, zebra sharks and giant groupers.

* The Southern California and Baja hall focuses on a three-story, 142,000-gallon exhibit of marine predators. Other exhibits include a 206,000-gallon marine mammal tank with sea lions and harbor seals.

* The Northern Pacific area centers on a 1,330-gallon exhibit of giant Pacific octopus and giant sea stars. There is also a 42,000-gallon tank displaying three sea otters and a 9,030-gallon tank for giant Japanese spider crabs, which grow as wide as 6 feet.

Yates is stocking the exhibit tanks slowly, adding a few species at a time to build the aquatic food chain in each habitat from the bottom up. That ensures that the prey have time to acclimate and learn the best places to hide before predator species are introduced.

"If you aren't careful," he said, "you'll have chaos."

Only with the advent of new high-strength, transparent plastics have aquarium designers been able to build the immense tanks needed to house larger fish species and more complex habitats.

The three-story viewing window for the Long Beach aquarium's predator tank uses three pieces of 9-inch-thick acrylic, weighing a total of 27 tons and strong enough to withstand the pressure of 142,000 gallons of salt water.

Together, the aquarium's 47 tanks require a million gallons of Pacific water, filtered every 30 to 90 minutes. Depending on the habitat, the water must be maintained at anywhere from 50 to 78 degrees Fahrenheit, using computer climate controls and titanium heat exchangers.

To ensure that the water is pollution-free, the aquarium will bring it by the barge-load from a depth of 50 feet two to four miles outside Long Beach Harbor, then store it in a pair of 125,000-gallon holding tanks.

"The amount of life support we need is amazing," Yates said.

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