DIPAC installs new aquarium

Specimens of Southeast's sea creatures should be in their new digs by March

Posted: Wednesday, November 10, 2004

George Bonnett has always liked to go out in a boat at low tide and see what he can find. Sometimes, he and Rich Mattson, who manages the education aquariums at DIPAC hatchery, come up with an unusual animal, such as a cancer crab.

"If a person takes the time, there's some fascinating animals you find," said Bonnett, a retired state mapmaker.

Mattson, Bonnett and other volunteer collectors will have their work cut out for them this spring. On Tuesday, the DIPAC fish hatchery installed its new 5,000-gallon main aquarium at the Ladd Macaulay Visitor Center on Channel Drive. The center also has smaller aquariums.

By March fish, crabs and other sea creatures should be living in their new environment, with a fiberglass seafloor. The aquarium, stocked with local species, represents what divers see, said Eric Prestegard, DIPAC's executive director.

"So many of our visitors never have the chance to see that. Now they do," he said.

Douglas Island Pink and Chum is a private, nonprofit fish hatchery with three locations in and around Juneau, and it also runs a visitor center, which attracted a record 123,000 people last summer. The visitor center also hosts school groups in fall and spring, and will give other tours on request.

Installing the aquarium was a story in itself.

Workers from North Pacific Erectors in Douglas cut a hole in the metal roof, peeled back insulation, moved away metal beams and lowered from a crane the 4,000-pound acrylic aquarium onto a wooden frame placed over the concrete pedestal.

DIPAC maintenance manager Jay Query then cut holes in the bottom of the aquarium to fit a drainage pipe and an air line.

Eventually, the aquarium sat on a bed of ice, so workers could slide the crane's lifting straps from under the aquarium, which settled onto the base as the ice melted.

The former aquarium, of the same size, was removed in October because saltwater had corroded the steel and concrete in the pedestal, and the concrete had cracked.

The new aquarium, made in Japan, is 10 feet in diameter and 9 feet high. Its single curved piece is 112 inches thick. The project - including tearing down the former aquarium and installing the new one - cost about $100,000, which was raised from cruise companies, local businesses and residents.

DIPAC will continue to solicit donations because it plans to hire a firm to design and build a landscape of artificial rock, Prestegard said. The idea is to have a realistic-looking seafloor immediately, rather than waiting for algae, sponges other organisms to grow on real rock, called live rock. It's a common practice in large aquariums.

"It takes forever for a coral reef to grow," Prestegard said. "Live rock is the same thing. It would take 10 to 15 years for it to look good. This way we can have a dynamic display fairly quickly. We can work with the designer to come up with the exact thing we want."

Mattson, who manages education programs at DIPAC, has been keeping the surviving creatures from the former aquarium in a fiberglass pond indoors.

"The biggest and oldest fish in our tank is our lingcod," he said.

They can live up to 70 years, but it's not clear how old DIPAC's is.

"I'm not one to give names to critters particularly, but that's Grandpa Lingcod," Mattson said.

The tank also holds rockfish, a flounder, a partly albino Dungeness crab, sea stars, sea urchins, a sculpin (called double uglies in Alaska), and other species. The completed aquarium will display 100 to 150 species, he said.

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