Monday, September 08, 2008
When I arrived in Long Beach in February of 1997 from Baltimore, one of my first duties was to help establish holding facilities for the many animals we would soon begin to accumulate for the Aquarium’s exhibits. Two sites were chosen for this; one at the Southern California Marine Institute on Terminal Island, and the other in a space rented from a tropical fish wholesale dealer in Gardena. Both sites had their respective pros and cons, but we were lucky to have two fairly large facilities to use since very shortly every available tank would be filled to the “gills” with every imaginable kind of fish or invertebrate. Incidentally, mammals, birds, and reptiles were never held at either of these locations because they were all acquired later and brought directly to the Aquarium.
The Gardena facility was a great place for us to use because the building still had all the tanks in place that had been used by the wholesaler. This helped a lot, but we installed several of our own tanks as well. Working at this facility could certainly be described as “interesting”. In fact that is probably an understatement. The building was rather old and not in the best state of repair. One Saturday afternoon I arrived at the site with my children to show them the fish, and discovered that the owner had made arrangements to have new tar applied to the roof. Unfortunately he had not warned us about this, and to make matters worse, there were many holes in the roof that the tar began to pour through into the room below. Try to imagine raining hot tar and you will have an idea of what this was like! When I arrived there, the on-duty aquarist was frantically running around trying to cover the tanks with large sheets of plastic to prevent the tar from ending up in the water with the fish. Needless to say, she was very happy to have my help since she had been trying to do this all this alone. Fortunately we were able to prevent most of it from getting in the water and causing health problems with the fish. I don’t recall losing any fish because of this but it was certainly a very memorable event. Despite the convenience of having all the tanks available to us, working there was never easy and improvising creative solutions to problems became a daily occurrence. Because of all the fish that were coming and going, we did a lot of water changes to the tanks. This process was complicated by the lack of adequate floor drains in the building so aquarist (now Assistant Curator) Steve Blair devised a method of draining the tanks into the toilet in our one, small bathroom!
At the Southern California Marine Institute (SCMI) on Terminal Island, we placed a number of large tanks in their outdoor parking lot as well as several smaller ones inside the building. One of the challenges during the summer of 1998 was the heat. That year was one of the strongest El Niño events to have occurred in history and it brought with it record temperatures in the air and local waters. The refrigeration systems on the tanks had a difficult time with this heat, and I remember fabricating jury-rigged cooling systems to try to keep the tanks cool enough for the fishes. These consisted of what seemed like miles of hoses snaking from tank to tank with cool water running from a tap. The inside tanks were somewhat better off because they were at least out of the sun, however the room they were in was not air conditioned so we installed several fans to help move the air around. One of these fans looked and sounded just like a jet engine! It was incredibly loud. Fortunately no one complained about noise in that very industrialized area.
The same El Niño that caused all those problems with air temperature also provided us with the opportunity to obtain some of our fishes more easily than would ordinarily have been possible. Because of the warmer water, things like yellowtail, ocean whitefish and barracuda were present in large numbers just when we needed to acquire them. One of the most memorable events to occur at SCMI was the day a helicopter blew the shade structure off our tanks. We had a lightweight fabric shade supported by a metal frame covering the outside tanks. The legs of the structure were held down by heavy buckets filled with concrete or gravel. On this afternoon a movie company happened to be filming an action sequence nearby that involved a low pass by a helicopter. Unbeknownst to us, the helicopter’s flight path carried it directly over our tanks. When it passed low over the tanks, the strong downdraft from the rotors lifted the shade structure completely off the ground and tossed it across the street! The structure was a total loss but the tanks and their inhabitants were unaffected. The director of the movie was very apologetic and agreed to pay for the cost of replacing the shade.
Over time, as the contractors completed work on the various exhibits at the Aquarium, they would be turned over to us for stocking with the animals that had been held at the two off-site locations. As we moved animals into the Aquarium, others were acquired and put though quarantine off-site. Needless to say this created some manpower and scheduling challenges as staff members were constantly shuttling between all three locations to care for the animals.
Caring for our charges in the still-to-be-completed Aquarium posed its own unique set of challenges too. Since the Aquarium was still a very active construction site our staff had to be constantly aware of the numerous potential safety concerns. Hard hats were required at all times while on the site. I never quite got used to the sight of our early volunteer SCUBA divers walking from place to place fully outfitted in dive gear, but with a hard hat on! Since the elevators were not operational until relatively late in the construction schedule, staff had to climb stairs to get to the upper floors. This was not particularly difficult for most of us, but for the divers wearing a full wetsuit, and about 70 pounds of gear on a hot day, it could be very unpleasant! The divers were a pretty stoic bunch and never complained about this or any of the other indignities they suffered through like having to “shower” outside with a garden hose or change clothes in a large shipping container before the dive locker was completed.
The construction site was constantly changing. For example, pathways from one area to another that were open one day would be blocked by a new wall the next. It is a testament to the sense of pride and cooperation on the part of the construction workers that they not only tolerated our presence on the site, but also actually welcomed us and were very interested in what we were doing with the animals. Whenever we would come through with containers of fish, they would stop to see what we had and ask questions. A few of them even went fishing with us when we chartered one of the local fishing boats to catch specimens for the Blue Cavern exhibit.
As we approached opening day, the old adage “you never get a second chance to make a good first impression” was at the top of our minds. We knew that the Aquarium’s eventual success depended in a large part on word of mouth reviews from early visitors. This meant that it would be critical for us to provide the most spectacular looking exhibits possible. They would have to be rich and diverse with lots of “eye candy” and this meant having lots of specimens. Having those two off site locations allowed us to accumulate the animals we needed ahead of time, put them through effective medical quarantine periods, and gradually move them to the exhibits in the Aquarium as they were completed.
While times at our offsite holding facilities were certainly hectic and challenging, having that much-needed tank space set the stage for a very successful opening.
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