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Reflections of earlier times at the Aquarium of the Pacific

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10 Year Anniversary Stories | Fish

Monday, September 08, 2008

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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.

Reflections of earlier times at the Aquarium of the Pacific
An outdoor photo of our SCMI facility on Terminal Island.

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Sarah Fortier

Wednesday, September 10, 2008 08:24 AM

Thanks for the blog! It’s always interesting to find out how much hard work and dedication goes into opening an aquarium!

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Friday, September 12, 2008 11:16 AM

Wow, Perry, thanks for taking us on a walk-through of the beginnings of the Aquarium of the Pacific’s animal collections. I had NO idea what it took to open such a wonderful place, and what we have today is a credit to you and your staff, not only those who work here now, but also those who helped get things started and who may have moved on to other jobs in the last 10 years.

Thanks so much for this insight into the opening of a Aquarium! =)

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Milena Acosta

Thursday, September 18, 2008 04:16 PM

I did not know we had these holding facilities on Terminal Island! Very cool. And it looks like our “resourcefulness” started very early on and has been a constant throughout these ten years.

Thanks Perry!

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Scott Wright

Wednesday, September 24, 2008 06:54 AM

My father in-law, Bill Ferris, was construction manager on the Aquarium of the Pacific. I remember visiting his office in Long Beach even before ground had been broken on the site. Bill had samples of the artificial coral on his desk and art renderings of the project. He was very excited to show it off. Like a kid at Christmas.
    As the foundation took shape, I was impressed with the difficulty of piping and pluming for water, air, and filtration lines that had to be laid. Layer upon layer of concreat was poured with absolutly no room for error least the next plum line be off center. A testement not only to Bill’s expertice, but the entire crew. And completed under budget which allowed for the purchase of the life size grey whale model hanging in the main entrance.

    Before the grand opening, my family had a chance to preview the exhibits, some before any specimens were added. As we stood gazing up at the huge main tank, I remember seeing some press with an employee on the 2nd level behind us. Weeks later as the grand opening in 1998 grew closer, the local Long Beach paper had a awsome cover shot of the main tank. I then recognized my wife, my daughter and Son all looking up in awe at the tank adding an exellent size reference to the picture

    Bill became ill and passed away in 1997. He never saw the completion of the aquarium. But it truly was the penical of his career. And we, his family, are so very proud of him. Has you enter the main entrance, looking at the bow on the right wall his name can be found on a plaque.

    Happy aniversay Aquarium of the Pacific. With love,

Bill’s daughters Susie, Karen, and family.

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Guest Blogger

Wednesday, October 01, 2008 12:08 PM

Mr. Wright,

Thank you so much for the reminiscences about your Father in Law.  I never met Mr. Ferris even though I started in early 1997 so I imagine he must have already been sick.  You are right that the Aquarium is an exceptionally complicated building and I have always been in awe of the skills of the people who managed to get it built properly.  That the Aquarium is not only strikingly beautiful but functional is a testament to the skills of Mr. Wright’s and the hundreds of other trades people.

Thanks so much for your comments!


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