Academy home to new coral reef

September 12, 2008 12:00:00 AM PDT
The California Academy of Sciences is now home to one of the largest living coral reef exhibits in the world.

The exhibit is designed to simulate a coral reef in the Philippines, one of the world's most diverse habitats. The tank is 25 feet deep and holds 212,000 gallons of water.

Visitors will be able to look right down on the coral from above, then go downstairs and get another view through one of the five windows into the tank.

It is a dramatic sight now, but two years ago, the reef was 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 putting a coral farm to grow inhabitants for the new exhibit. The staff wanted to grow their own coral so they would not have to take it out of the wild.

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 it 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 algaes, 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 one thousand square foot coral reef," Steinhart Aquarium curator Bart Shepherd said.

While the coral grew, so did its future home. Crews made artificial rocks by piling cinderblocks to mimic the shape of the natural habitat. The blocks were then wrapped with plastic mesh and sprayed with concrete. Workers created a realistic texture on the rockwork using casts from actual coral reef walls.

The next big step was moving the coral from the farm to its new home. The corals were gently packed in plastic bags and Styrofoam boxes, and then driven to the Academy in Golden Gate Park. The team had to work fast, so the coral would not be out of the water for too long.

Now, seven months after the first pieces of coral were put in place, a dramatic new reef is growing.

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 the exhibit will show visitors why the reefs are worth saving.

Written and produced by Jennifer Olney