Going fishing: New Orleans aquarium restocking after huge hurricane losses
AP National Writer
NEW ORLEANS — It's lunchtime and Elvira and Nick are having a quick bite, then it's back to an afternoon of swimming in their big glass house on the Mississippi River.
Their midday routine has resumed at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, where the two 5-foot tarpons are once again sharing meals and a home with Midas, the 300-pound green sea turtle who returned after a six-week exile in Texas.
Slowly, this watery world is rebuilding from the staggering blow it suffered in Hurricane Katrina: Generator problems killed up to 10,000 fish, including some rare species nurtured over many years.
Like New Orleans itself, the aquarium is now on a long road back. And like the city, the revival will depend, in part, on hardy holdouts and returning evacuees, some still living far away — including Satchmo, Voodoo and 17 other penguins now cooling their heels in California.
While no one here equates the disaster at the aquarium to the epic human devastation left by Katrina, the animal losses are still heartbreaking to devoted workers who tend to these sea creatures each day.
"Not only is it sad because you know how much life is lost ... you know you'll never be able to replace it like it was," says Lance Ripley, assistant curator of fish.
The aquarium has begun restocking and plans to reopen this summer, but it won't be easy. Finding the right fish to fill a million gallons of water not only takes time and money, but generosity and luck.
Hundreds of fish already have been donated by other aquariums. And expeditions are being planned to the Florida Keys, the Caribbean and other spots to collect more.
"There are no pet stores that sell 9-foot sharks," says John Hewitt, the aquarium's director of husbandry. "You've got to get them some other way. We're going to try and collect as many animals as we can."
But it will be difficult, maybe even impossible, to replace some losses — such as a 13-foot small-tooth sawfish called Mr. Bill, and a 250-pound goliath grouper, both on the endangered species list, along with nine sandtiger sharks, whose numbers have been dwindling because of commercial fishing.
"Some of these collections have taken years to accumulate," Ripley says. "We had five species of freshwater stingray. We had dozens of breeding projects over the last 15 years. We had a jellyfish gallery 10 years in the making. ... All that's gone."
And there's no quick way to bring it back.
"You have to repopulate slowly," Hewitt says. "To capture a couple of sharks and move them across the country, you have to have holding spaces, isolation and quarantine areas. ... Catching them is the easier part. Getting them from here to there without mortal damage is what gets complicated."
Once they do arrive, fish can't simply be dropped in water. Some need time to warm up to captivity, the public — or each other.
But newcomers are taking the plunge.
The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga and the Underwater Adventures aquarium at the Mall of America in Minnesota donated catfish, shark pups, crappie and hundreds of small reef fish. A seafood restaurant in Hattiesburg, Miss., handed over a 2-foot shark that had outgrown its tank.
"Everyone says, 'If we have it extra, it's yours,' " Ripley says.
Louisiana fishing clubs have offered help to the New Orleans aquarium, which also received an invitation from the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago to use its 85-foot research ship, the Coral Reef II, for a collecting expedition in the Caribbean.
Repopulating the aquarium is important to the city's economy. It's a big tourist attraction, drawing 1.4 million visitors a year along with its adjoining IMAX theater. (Another popular spot, the zoo, lost just a few animals and reopened in November.)
The problems at the aquarium came after workers who had hunkered down in the building during the storm were told to evacuate as the looting edged nearer and floodwaters rose.
Ron Forman, president and chief executive officer of the Audubon Nature Institute, which operates the aquarium, ordered his staff out, fearing for their safety. He stayed behind, joined by several New Orleans police officers, who set up a command post.
The officers traded their dirty, wet uniforms for gift shop shorts, caps and T-shirts and hand-fed several animals.
Don Kinney, an officer who brought along his pet cockatoo, Yogi, scrounged around the aquarium's refrigerator and kitchen and found fish for the otters and penguins, red meat for the white alligator and frozen (but thawing) mice for the birds.
Toting a flashlight and a feeding bucket, Kinney was a welcome sight to the hungry holdouts.
"It gave me a good feeling in my heart knowing I was feeding animals and keeping them alive," says Kinney, who lost his own home in the floods and ended up bunking on an aquarium bench.
But no one could save thousands of fish after the generator clogged and couldn't produce enough electricity to run systems that add oxygen, rid the tanks of waste and keep the water cool.
"It was a total domino effect," Ripley says.
Cool, clear water turned hot, dirty and toxic. "Every day it got worse," Forman says.
When workers returned the weekend after the storm, they faced a grim scene: cloudy, bacteria-filled tanks littered with thousands of dead fish. Some donned scuba gear and began scooping them out.
"It was incredibly difficult," Hewitt says. "It's like burying your children — and that's all I'm going to say about that."
Having worked at the aquarium its entire 15 years, Hewitt had a deep attachment to the creatures.
"I took many of them out of the wild," he says. "There's a great deal of responsibility that comes with that ... to ensure that the animal has the best possible chance of a long, productive life."
About 2,000 animals, including penguins, raptors, turtles, otters, the white alligator and some fish such as tarpons that have the capability to breathe air, survived — along with sea dragons, sea horses and clownfish.
But some barely hung on.
The macaws were panting because temperatures in the Amazon rain forest exhibit, with its lush tropical foliage, had soared to 135 degrees.
The 19 penguins were dirty and agitated, but aviculturist Tom Dyer was thrilled they were alive. He jokingly calls them his kids, knows each bird's personality and can instantly distinguish their seemingly carbon-copy features.
"You could paint them all orange and I could tell you in 30 seconds who's who," says Dyer, who quickly offers proof by rattling off their idiosyncrasies:
There's Satchmo, who sits between the legs of the person feeding him, Voodoo, who is delicate and fastidious, and Patience, his favorite. Dyer glances at a calendar on his watch and notes that Patience is "going to be 23 tomorrow. ... She's getting a little harder to feed. She can't get her beak around the food. But she's still going strong."
Dyer escorted the birds — along with sea otters Buck and Emma — on a cargo plane to their temporary home, California's Monterey Bay Aquarium. He keeps on eye on the birds' progress via Web cam.
He has taken other trips, too, with some of his charges — even getting a police escort in the post-Katrina chaos to return five rehabilitated sea turtles to the Gulf of Mexico. The aquarium treats endangered turtles that are sick or injured and releases them back to their natural habitat.
Dyer had a bittersweet goodbye for 3-pound Mr. Chompers, a loggerhead he had nursed back to health after it arrived nearly a year ago weighing a puny 3 ounces.
He got a brassy "Helllooo!" weeks later when he traveled to the Houston zoo and was greeted by Spike, one of the macaws he'd come to take home from her refuge there. The enthusiastic welcome surprised the keepers who said the bird hadn't talked while she was there.
"People say elephants never forget," Dyer says. "But it's birds."
The macaws are back, but some animals won't return for months. Money is one reason. The two otters, for instance, have white-tablecloth tastes — lobster, clams, shrimp and squid, five meals a day — and it costs $40,000 a year to feed them.
The aquarium faces more than $5 million in repairs, though insurance will likely cover that.
But Forman says finances alone don't dictate the aquarium's revival, noting the homecoming of Midas, the green sea turtle, was a morale boost more than anything else.
"It's important for the spirits of the community," he says. "We have animals who've left and animals who've died. We had to show that our animals our coming back."
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company