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Bold experiment replicates life at sea

September 12, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
The Steinhart Aquarium is trying to push the envelope of its exhibits. In one particular project, they have undertaken an ambitious attempt to replicate life in a sandy pool around a coral reef in the Philippines.

Their first obstacle was simply getting all the animals to San Francisco.

Even though the animals in the exhibit live together in nature, putting them together in captivity is a big challenge, Steinhart Aquarium curator Bart Shepherd said.

"Finding the animal at the right time, at the right size, in the right location, it can be quite a little trick," Shepherd said.

One year ago, a truck full of Bamboo Sharks arrived in San Francisco after a long trek up I-5 from southern California. The trip is typically no big deal for people. But for sharks, it was a bit of an ordeal.

Ten sharks were transported together in one giant box. Not only did they handle the trip well, one actually laid an egg during the trip, making a total of 11.

Each shark was carefully checked, weighed and measured by a veterinarian. Blood samples were taken. Lab technicians had to work quickly because the sharks could not be out of water for more than five minutes.

The sharks, born in a Long Beach aquarium, will eventually grow to about three-feet long.

Turtles, at least one on loan from Sea World, are also part of the exhibit. Shepherd described the animals as charismatic, "there are lots of conservation stories and messages that can be told about them, how they are in trouble around the world."

The new animals were held at the Academy's temporary building on Howard Street. The building, set up as an interim museum while the old Academy was torn down and the new one built, has been the holding location for thousands of animals.

The part of the trip when the animals moved out of this building was often just as challenging as they day they moved in.

After living at Howard Street for months, one group of stingrays was loaded one-by-one into plastic bags for safety and rushed to a veterinary station. When the stingrays got to their final destination, the process was same as they day they arrived. They were weighed, measured and evaluated.

"The animals were a lot stronger than they were when we first brought them in, which is a good sign," Shepherd said. "They've been growing, they've been here stabilizing and getting plenty to eat."

After each ray was examined, they were loaded into a tank on top of a truck and driven across town to the new building where a team was ready at the loading dock. They were rolled into an elevator, a part of the process where at least one ray tried unsuccessfully to escape.

Not much later, the rays were lowered into their new home, a biologist standing by to make sure everything went smoothly. There was some head bumping, but the rays quickly figured out their new surroundings.

Moving the turtle was much faster. A biologist lured him to the side of the tank with the offer of a back-scratching. He was slipped into a sling and hauled out. A half-hour later he was at the new building getting acquainted with his tank mates.

As the days went by the relationship between the turtle and the sting rays did not go well. Sea turtles are vegetarians and one got a little too interested in the fish food the rays were eating.

"One day we actually witnessed him actively chasing and biting at one of the sting rays. So we knew the experiment was over," Shepherd said.

The turtle is headed back to Sea World where he was born.

Luckily, all the other animals in the lagoon are thriving.

"Whenever you are working with living animals there is always the potential for things to not go as you expected," Shepherd said. "They have behaviors, they have their own mindset of what they want to do and how they want to do it."

Shepherd told ABC7 that this kind of experience is actually one of the most exciting things about working at an aquarium; you never know what will happen next.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney


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