Off the Deep End

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Along with granddaddies like Chicago's Shedd Aquarium and the New England Aquarium in Boston, there are some fifty aquariums in cities across the country, including Dallas, Texas; Royal Oak, Michigan; Aurora, Ohio; and at the Mall of America, in Minneapolis. Ripley's Believe It or Not plans to sink $500 million into ten new aquariums. In Las Vegas, at least two casinos house spectacular fish shows; the Mirage Hotel, home to one of the better dolphin facilities in the country, features a glass wall with live sharks swimming in a coral reef behind the reservations desk.

Thirty more cities now have public aquariums under construction or in the fundraising stage, and many of these cities, like Denver, lie half a continent away from an ocean. Civic developers drool over these high-tech fish zoos much as they would an anchor department store, says Jane Ballentine, spokesperson for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.

"They're seen as a great tourist draw that will spill over into nearby restaurants and hotels," says Ballentine. "Cities are seeing aquariums as a way to increase their economic viability."

The first urban pioneer was the National Aquarium in Baltimore, built in 1981 and credited with revitalizing that city's dingy Inner Harbor, now jammed with restaurants, shops and a hopping nightlife. The spectacular Monterey Bay Aquarium, built in 1983 on the site of an old fishery on John Steinbeck's crime-plagued Cannery Row, now attracts more than two million visitors each year and holds the world's largest population of marine life outside the ocean itself.

The term "aquarium" was first coined in the 1840s, about the same time that P.T. Barnum purchased the Boston Aquarial Gardens and took the show on the road to New York. Barnum stuck a stuffed monkey torso into a large fish's mouth and called it his Feejee Mermaid. "People loved that," says Taylor, also the author of a book on the history of aquariums. In those Victorian days, saltwater fish tanks in the parlor were all the rage, and many middle-class Englishwomen developed an avid fascination for sea life. "There are charming pictures of Victorian ladies collecting algae," says Taylor. But marine biology was still in its infancy; when exotic underwater creatures went on display in Barnum's tanks, they were billed as evidence of "God's glory."

In 1964, San Diego developers launched their own oceanarium, twentieth-century style. Since then, Sea World has drawn millions of visitors each year with its combination amusement park and aquatic displays, juxtaposing roller coasters and the circus thrills of dancing dolphins and Shamu the killer whale. "Sea World and places like it," writes Susan Davis in her fascinating book Spectacular Nature: Corporate Culture and the Sea World Experience, "are carefully constructed, expensively maintained artificial worlds that most of the time fairly successfully conceal their own extreme artificiality."

Why are people willing to shell out big bucks--in the case of Ocean Journey, $14.95 for adults and $12.95 for senior citizens and kids ages thirteen to seventeen--for a couple of hours of looking at fish? For starters, many of the baby boomers who are now taking their kids on Sunday outings grew up on Jacques Cousteau reruns. And people respond well to the "wild factor"--museums where the collection doesn't simply hang on a wall. "The animals we see in zoos are kind of like us," Taylor explains. "They have brown eyes and hair. But with the animals in aquariums, it's like seeing alien life forms."

From their marketing strategies to their education programs, new aquariums are more likely to have replaced the Flipper allure with a Free Willy sensibility. Groups in Florida and elsewhere are campaigning for the release of orca whales that were wrenched from their ocean families and put in tanks to do tricks for ogling humans. Exhibits like Sea World's "dolphin in a bikini" four decades ago have given way to a far more politically correct conservation message.

"It's a big responsibility to keep live animals in captivity. You've got to do it right," says Taylor, who preaches about the hazards of the aquarium craze, especially when it comes to for-profits. "I think some are being built for the wrong reasons--as investments. What I'm afraid is that some of the business-driven aquariums are not going to do well, and fish are going to get sick." If that happens, he says, the news will spread and all aquariums will get a bad rap.

The Flemings wanted their aquarium built from the inside out, with habitat-driven exhibits that are the next best thing to the wild for their occupants. "The exhibits are only stimulating [for people] if the animals in them are stimulated and active," Fleming says.

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Gayle Worland