Aquarium's Acquisition Attempts Cause Waves

This week, officials announced that the grand opening of the Georgia Aquarium will take place Nov. 23. What hasn't been announced yet is specifically what kind of animals the aquarium will house, although conservationists in Belize have provided a hint about at least one of the sea creatures.

In late 2003, aquarium officials approached Friends of Nature, a nongovernmental organization that operates a whale shark sanctuary off the southern tip of Belize. According to David Vernon, a Friends of Nature board member, the aquarium offered the sanctuary $1 million in exchange for permission to remove two whale sharks, one male and one female, from sanctuary waters.

The whale shark is a shark found in tropical seas and is the largest known fish. It has no teeth, feeds off plankton and often grows up to 60 feet and weighs up to two tons. Initially, negotiations between the aquarium and Friends of Nature were held in secret, but news of the talks was leaked. Vernon says locals flooded the sanctuary headquarters with phone calls and letters opposing any deal.

In the wild, whale sharks can live up to 100 years, but in captivity they live anywhere from a few days to a few years. The Okinawa Churaumi Aquarium holds the record for keeping a whale shark alive in captivity. That shark celebrated his 10th birthday in March.

According to Vernon, the Georgia Aquarium planned to fly a pair of whale sharks from Belize City to Atlanta.

Andy Deharth, assistant curator of fishes at the National Aquarium in Baltimore, says transporting a whale shark would require a big plane and a shark box - a large tank typically made out of fiberglass or aluminum.

"You've got to use a submergible bilge pump, mounted within the container, to provide a current," Deharth says. "There's got to be a direct flow of water into [the] shark's mouth so that it can travel over the shark's gills. I spent a number of years at a zoo in Omaha, Neb., and we rented a C130 plane to bring sharks there and back."

But according to Vernon, Georgia Aquarium officials ultimately withdrew their offer in the face of the local opposition. The aquarium, in keeping with its policy of refusing to discuss which fish will be on display, wouldn't say if a whale shark is on its wish list. However, the aquarium is slated to host 55,000 fish, comprising 500 species.

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