Off the Deep End

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So the river otters can play on a (manmade) abandoned beaver dam; the arowana fish will have a cage of crickets dangling above its pool so it can jump out of the water to snatch an unsuspecting insect, much as it does in its native Indonesian waters. Tigers Bali and Java, who can dive in a pool or sun themselves on rocks in a veritable Sumatran-tiger Truman Show, will have their very own sound system. A computerized loop of jungle din, recorded in the wild, will repeat sounds in the same sequence only once every four years. "We wanted them to hear periodic sounds--like the sound of a wild pig," says Fleming. "They may love that. They may investigate or ignore the sound completely. It's just like us. We have a wall of sounds around us--the phones, people going by--but we pick and choose what we want to pay attention to. If that background noise was gone completely, it would be bothersome."

The tigers like to swim and will dog-paddle in a glassed-in pool to the amusement of Ocean Journey visitors. On land--open land--a 300-pound, full-grown Sumatran tiger can jump vertically about fifteen feet in the air and run twenty miles per hour.

The aquarium's press kit advertises that "Ocean Journey chose these mammals to show that water is essential to much more than fish." Critics have labeled the tigers a marketing ploy and an indulgence by Fleming, a former tiger trainer for Sea World. But as the forest's top predator, the tigers "are certainly a very prominent part of the ecosystem," argues Ocean Journey's life sciences director Scott Nygren. "That's the trend--to display a complete habitat, and from there it's easier to convey a conservation 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.

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Gayle Worland