New museum reaches latest milestone

March 4, 2008 9:11:39 PM PST
A spectacular coral reef is taking shape in Golden Gate Park. It's the latest milestone at the California Academy of Sciences' new museum. The building won't open until September, but some spectacular new residents are already settling in.

This is the first piece of coral moving in to what will soon be one of the largest living coral reef exhibits in the world. It's an exciting moment for a team that's been planning this for years.

"Oh it's wonderful. It's [gonna] be really hard to get me out of this today," says Bart Shepherd, curator.

The coral reef is inside the California Academy of Sciences new building in Golden Gate Park. The tank holds 212,000 gallons of water, piped in four miles from the Pacific Ocean.

Visitors will be able to look right down on the coral from above and then go downstairs and get a different view through one of five windows into the tank. It's very impressive now, but just two years ago, all this was pretty hard to imagine.

In 2006, construction on the coral reef tank was just beginning. The shell for the tank was built at the same time the rest of the building was going up around it.

Across town, the Academy put in a coral farm to grow inhabitants for the new exhibit. The staff wanted to grow their own coral, so they wouldn't have to take it out of the wild.

dc "Growing coral in such an environment is a little tricky," says Shepherd.

They collected small pieces of coral from other museums. Then they had to figure out the perfect conditions to make the coral feel as if were in the tropics.

"We were doing everything we could to feed the corals, give them the right lighting, give them the right water circulation, control problem algae's, do all that kind of stuff, so we could maximize the time that we had, the limited time we had, to grow a more than 1,000 square foot coral reef," says Sheperd.

While the coral grew, so did its future home.

Last May, the tanks looked quite different. Crews made artificial rocks by piling cinderblocks to mimic the shape of natural habitat. The blocks were wrapped with plastic mesh, and then sprayed with concrete.

Workers created a realistic texture on the rockwork using casts from actual coral reef walls. They hung energy-efficient halide lamps that will simulate tropical light. The giant viewing windows were installed. Finally, they piped in ocean water and the tank was ready.

Now the next big step is moving the coral from the farm to its new home. The whole move will take months, but ABC7 was there for the first moving day. Biologist Seth Wolters is in charge of getting the corals safely out of their tanks.

"Just kind of wave the water over the top of the polyps. The polyps are the nice tentacles, the green tentacles, that you see out and about. Basically I try to wave over the top of them so they pull in a little bit. That will help them protect themselves when they are exposed to the air," says Wolters.

The corals are gently packed in plastic bags and Styrofoam boxes and then driven to their new home in Golden Gate Park. The team has to work fast, so the coral won't be out of water too long. The divers get right to work. They're just learning the intricacies of the new tank.

"It's very complicated and three dimensional and has lots of little nooks and crannies and holes. And we'll kind of wedge those corals down so they are in a secure spot," says Sheperd.

The divers are trying a variety of species in different parts of the tank to see what works where. The exhibit is designed to simulate a coral reef in the Philippines, one of the world's most diverse habitats.

Academy scientists say global warming and other environmental problems may destroy up to 70 percent of the earth's coral reefs in the next 15 years. They hope this exhibit will show visitors why the reefs are worth saving.

If you think diving in the tank looks like fun, you could have your chance. The Academy is recruiting volunteer certified divers to help maintain the exhibit. Click here to learn more about volunteering.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney.