Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Living Shipwreck - Replica of a Sunken World War II German Submarine

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The Free Press
By Janette Pippin
May 18,2006


PINE KNOLL SHORES — All in all, it was quite a backdrop.

There were two sand tiger sharks — each 8 feet long. Nearby, some sandbar sharks swam with several hundred other varieties of fish. All had room to roam in the 306,000-gallon ocean tank that houses the signature exhibit now almost ready for this weekend’s opening of the newly expanded N.C. Aquarium at Pine Knoll Shores.

They call it the Living Shipwreck tank. Folks will get their first chance to see it Friday after a 10:30 a.m. ribbon-cutting ceremony.

What they’ll see are the results of a $25 million expansion that tripled the size of the aquarium. And the 65-foot-long Living Shipwreck exhibit far surpasses the 12,000-gallon tank that was the former facility’s largest.

The exhibit includes a three-quarter-size replica of a sunken World War II submarine and duplicates the marine community typical of an offshore shipwreck.

On Wednesday, divers were among those making final preparations this week at the aquarium, performing maintenance tasks within the tank and taking time out to demonstrate the underwater microphone that will allow them to communicate with visitors during daily programs at the exhibit.

After the long effort to complete the expansion and get the aquarium ready, the staff is anxious to greet visitors and introduce them to the nearly 40 exhibits.

“There’s a sigh of relief,” said Steve Broadhurst, a dive safety officer who worked at the previous facility in the late 1980s and just rejoined the staff. “We’ve been working on this for so long and we’re ready to cut the ribbon on this project.”

While construction workers completed the last details, aquarium staff worked on finishing touches, from cleaning windows to adding fish to tanks.

At the Smoky Mountain Trout Pond, aquarists added the first 12 fish to the exhibit. The mix of rainbow, brook and brown trout were brought in from a hatchery in western North Carolina.

And while the exhibit will eventually hold 30 or more trout, the process of introducing animals to their new habitat is gradual, said aquarist Ben Wunderly.

“Because of water quality issues, you can’t slam a tank full all at once. We’re going to have fish in every tank but maybe not as many as they will hold down the line,” he said.

Aquarium Director Jay Barnes said that’s one reason for visitors to come out for the grand opening and then make plans to return again.

“We encourage everybody to come see us now and then come back again later,” he said.

The new aquarium depicts aquatic life from North Carolina’s “Mountains to the Sea.” Visitors begin their tour with the 32-foot Smoky Mountain waterfall and continue a trip through the Piedmont, Coastal Plain, Tidal Waters and Ocean galleries.

The new features include a river otter exhibit. Their names are Pungo and Neuse.

The otters, caught in the wild in the Sneads Ferry area, have been kept in a holding facility at the Roanoke Island aquarium since February and were introduced to their new habitat earlier this week.

Aquarist Meredith Owens said they’ve adjusted to the new environment well, and she’s looking forward to teaching the public more about the animals.

“By making people more aware they are out there we can protect their habitat,” she said.

Overtrapping, pollution and wetlands drainage drastically reduced the river otter population in the 20th century. While coastal otters survived deep in the swamps, western North Carolina otters were virtually extinct by the late 1930s, according to the information that is displayed as part of the exhibit.

River otters were reintroduced by the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission and the population is rebounding.

Barnes said the staff and team of volunteers provide the educational programming and the care of the animals that makes the aquarium more than just a new building.

“The facility is in itself wonderful. The exhibits are great. The animals are spectacular,” he said. “To me, though, the aquarium is really about the people who bring it all together. Our talented staff and volunteers share their knowledge and their commitment to conservation with our visitors in remarkably creative and memorable ways.”


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