SOAKING IT UP
The Aquarium of the Americas reopens today
Friday, May 26, 2006
By Maria Montoya
McNally Sislo is fascinated with clown fish. Dorian White loves the sharks. Virgil Harrison can't wait to see the penguins.
The eighth-graders from St. Louis Cathedral Academy were all abuzz when they caught a preview of the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas earlier this month.
"Hurricane Katrina didn't take just human life, she took so many animals too," White said. "But just like we're coming back, so are the animals. That's why we felt it was important for our class to help the aquarium because the sooner we get more things open more people will realize we can all come back."
After being shut down for nine months, the aquarium will reopen today so New Orleanians can see old friends like the two Southern Sea Otters and the entire 19-bird penguin colony, which were evacuated to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California for safekeeping in the days after the storm and arrived home on Monday.
Along with those creatures, there are new fishes that Audubon staff members, led by John Hewitt, senior vice president and director of husbandry, collected during trips in April to the Florida Keys and the Bahamas. Among the new additions to the aquarium are a school of blue runner Gulf fish, Pacific sea nettles, southern stingrays and electric green moray eels.
Despite the aquariums' growing collection, staff members have said that there's something equally important that has been missing over the last few months: the visitors.
"It's going to be great to have people back in our facility because the strangest thing all these months is the emptiness of not having families walking around," Hewitt said. "We are so happy to have so many animals back, but the heart and soul of an aquarium is the visitors. We can't wait to see their faces when those doors open."
Before the storm, the aquarium hosted more than 1 million visitors each year.
Since Hurricane Katrina struck, Ron Forman, institute president and chief executive officer, has visited dozens of facilities that have made donations, sent volunteers and offered animals to both the zoo and aquarium.
St. Louis Cathedral Academy school children raised $600 for the aquarium, part of the $10 million in private dollars donated since the storm.
Each week that the zoo and aquarium were not operating, the institute lost $1 million in admission fees, which in turn meant cutting 600 jobs in the weeks after the storm.
For the aquarium, that meant going from more than 260 workers to 48. The institute has been rehiring some of its laid-off workers and expects to have about 120 people on the aquarium's payroll.
To prepare the aquarium for its opening, however, many of the staff members have become jacks-of-all-trades, said Tom Dyer, who used to work primarily as an aviculturist before Katrina.
"We're no longer specialists, we are a true team," Dyer said. "These days you do whatever is necessary to keep things running around here -- even if that's cleaning a bathroom or unloading a refrigerator truck full of fish food."
In the weeks before the aquarium opened, the staff has enjoyed taking the macaws out to sit on benches in front of the aquarium to people watch. The birds miss being the center of attention, Dyer said.
As do many of the volunteers, who for the last 16 years have run many of the tours and activities throughout the aquarium.
"When I was in Baton Rouge and I heard the animals were dying I just cried, and now as they announced that we're finally opening, I cried tears of joy," said Dottie Hutton, who volunteers with her husband, Dave, at the aquarium. For years, Hutton said she's worked the "Tuesday afternoon shift" along with Joy Seeger, Lelia Duvalle and Adonicia Dawson. She said New Orleans just wouldn't seem normal again to her until she was back among her animal and people friends she's come to love.
Dawson, who lost everything in the storm, said the opening of the aquarium was like a family reunion.
"Everyone's been through so much, we can't replace the things or loved ones that we've lost," Dawson said. "But this feels normal, seeing children in the aquarium laughing and having a good time, that's normal. Right now, everyone could use a bit more normal."
Though plenty of things will look as they did pre-Katrina at the aquarium, Hewitt said New Orleanians and visitors can expect that there'll still be more changes ahead for the aquarium.
"Once the doors open, we'll continue to make progress on the projects we're working on and making the aquarium a better and more interesting place to visit," Hewitt said. "We never could have made such changes with live animals in place -- so in many ways this rebuilding was a chance for us to make things more diverse for our visitors."
Hewitt said he can't wait to see the children's reactions to the refurbished exhibits.
"I miss that, seeing the normal things around here. It's just so much fun to be doing normal things again, finally."
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Staff writer Maria Montoya can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
or at (504) 826-3446.
The 5½-story screen at the Entergy IMAX Theatre returns to service today as the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas celebrates its post-Katrina reopening.
The IMAX theater will have three nature documentaries in daily rotation, including "Coral Reef Adventure" (noon, 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays), a film new to the New Orleans market. The other two films, both of which premiered before the hurricane and are presented in 3-D, are "Sharks" (11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays) and "Wild Safari" (10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays).
The first two movies today are open only to aquarium members. Although usually closed on Mondays, the theater will open this Monday for Memorial Day.
Later this summer, the Audubon Nature Institute hopes to premiere "Hurricane on the Bayou," an IMAX film produced by the institute and directed by McGillivray Freeman Films. The movie tells the story of Katrina and its impact on Louisiana's disappearing wetlands.
For information and tickets, call (504) 581-4629, or visit www.auduboninstitute.org