Off the Deep End

Colorado's Ocean Journey is banking on expensive special effects to drive home its conservationist message.

All of the animals--finned or furred--who come to Colorado Ocean Journey first must go through a four- to six-week observation and quarantine period in the laboratories behind the aquarium. They're now slowly being introduced to their permanent exhibit-homes. "The animals set their own schedule," says Nygren. "We want to slowly condition them to their new environment so they don't freak out."

Nygren manages the curators who will oversee Ocean Journey's 300 fish, bird and mammal species, fifteen of which are on the endangered-species list. A veteran of Sea World and the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Nygren also supervises the life-support engineers who treat and pump the 1 million gallons of Denver tap water circulating through the building every 48 minutes. About one-third of Ocean Journey's water supply is for the freshwater creatures; the remainder is made into artificial seawater. In an expensive (seven cents per gallon) two-day process, the water is stripped of its copper and chlorine, then mixed with a recipe of sea salts in a 30,000-gallon basin before being diluted for use in the saltwater tanks.

Ocean Journey has purchased all of the fish for its Indonesia exhibit from wholesalers at prices ranging from $1 to $1,000. But most of the sea creatures for the Colorado side were plucked from the ocean by hand.

Ocean Journey secured a permit from the Mexican government to remove 8,000 live fish from the Sea of Cortez, the 600-mile strip of saltwater between Baja California and the Mexican mainland. In exchange, the aquarium will conduct a study comparing the fish population in its 25,000-square-meter collection area with three similar-sized control areas. Non-commercial fish "are a pretty abundant resource" in the Sea of Cortez, says Nygren, "but they really don't have a handle on how abundant."

The aquarium looked for colorful fish with entertaining or quirky behaviors, such as the yellowtail sturgeon, which defends itself with a little blade near the base of its tail, or the jawfish, which digs a burrow in the ocean floor and sticks out its head to watch the world float by.

Saltwater fish are very difficult to breed in captivity, so collectors need to go to their original habitat. Still, environmentalists are generally not concerned about fish removed for educational institutions. "Compared to the incredible volume of fish taken out of the sea for commercial and recreational fishing, the numbers of fish collected for aquariums is really insignificant," says Carl Safina, director of the Living Oceans Program for the Audubon Society.

On a busy commercial fishing day, thousands of eighteen-foot motorized fiberglass boats, called "pangas," blanket the Sea of Cortez. Mexico has fishing regulations on the books, "but enforcement has been very lax," says nationally known marine biologist David Powell, who has seen a dramatic decline in sealife there over his forty-year career.

Ocean Journey will mention the dangers of overfishing in its exhibits and plans to establish a fund to help conservation efforts in the Sea of Cortez, which no longer receives rich river nutrients from the Colorado because of the river's many dams and diversions. The aquarium will also contribute conservation funds on behalf of its cute-and-cuddliest residents: sea otters Taylor and Gracie and tigers Bali and Java, whose big-cat brethren are highly endangered.

Apioneer of the "immersion" approach, Ocean Journey will channel its visitors between red canyon walls, spray them with mist and surround them with smell-o-vision scents and the authentic twitters and shrieks of wild birds. Immersion is a growing trend in aquariums, an attempt to create "a parallel universe," says Taylor.

"It's like a film," he says. "You've got to get people to suspend their disbelief" and make them think they're in a Sumatran rainforest rather than a stone's throw from the murky Platte. "It's a great trend, because what you want to do is involve people rather than have them looking passively through glass, as if they're in front of a Nordstrom's shoe display."

One of Ocean Journey's most spectacular effects (the brainchild of Judy Petersen-Fleming, like most of the anticipated crowd-pleasers) is the flash flood exhibit. Every two and a half minutes in the Colorado desert area, the lights will dim, and visitors will hear the rumble of approaching thunder and rain, then a clash of lightning even more authentic than the recording in the fresh-produce section at Safeway. Suddenly, 2,500 gallons of water will come crashing toward the crowd and smash into a plate of clear acrylic. "It's really a dramatic exhibit" demonstrating a unique natural phenomenon, Hekkers says. "It's hard to understand that power of a flash flood, because if you're in one, you probably won't survive."

"If people have an 'experience,' it may have more of an impact on them," Petersen-Fleming explains. "When I walked through the jungles of Sumatra, I realized what an impact it had on me, and I wanted to share that with people." More cynical adults might be distracted by the manufactured trees and other effects, but "when I take kids through, they say, 'Wow, I didn't know the trees are so big in the rainforest.'"

"The first time people come in," adds Ocean Journey publicist Robin Morgan during a hasty press tour, "it's like sensory overload."

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