National Aquarium Goes Down Under

By Carol Sorgen

Boomer’s a little skittish these days but that’s to be expected. The two-year-old wallaby is getting used to his new digs at the National Aquarium in Baltimore’s much anticipated–and newly opened–exhibit, “Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes.”

Not all of the 1,800 native animals that will make their home at the Aquarium have joined Boomer yet. Some of them, such as the not-quite-so-cute fruit bats–are still adapting to their new waterfront home (and without having to pay downtown real estate prices)–not to mention the 400,000 yearly visitors the Aquarium hopes to attract.

The “gorgeous, vertical, and immersive” exhibit, as Aquarium officials describe it, opened on December 16 after five years, and $74.6 million, in the planning. “Animal Planet Australia” is the largest expansion since the Aquarium opened 24 years ago.

In remarks made to the press before the official opening, Executive Director David Pittenger said that the Aquarium’s goal in planning this expansion had been not only to create a signature exhibit for the Aquarium itself but also to add to the presence of the Baltimore skyline. Mission accomplished!

The exhibit–which overlooks Baltimore’s Inner Harbor waterfront–depicts a typical river gorge in Australia’s Northern Territory (which lies more than 24 hours from Baltimore, as an introductory film instructs), and houses more than 120 species of animals, including freshwater crocodiles, turtles, fishes, and free-flying birds.

You can walk through the bottom of the gorge, come nose to nose with free-roaming lizards basking on rocky cliffs, see colorful birds swooping and squawking overhead, feel a squirt of water as an archer fish hunts for its food, view flying foxes hanging from cliffside trees and appreciate the thick acrylic that separates them from the freshwater crocodiles and venomous death adder snakes.

The new hand-carved and painted habitat, with its 35-foot rock-walled waterfall, depicts this land of flood, drought and fire; parts of the exhibit have even been scorched to represent fires from lightning strikes.

The animals, many from Australia, began arriving in Baltimore in late 2002 and have been living – and growing – at the Aquarium’s off-site animal care center for the past few years. Among the largest of the animals that will live in the new habitat are the three to four foot long barramundi fish, five foot long crocodiles and the flying foxes.

Why did the National Aquarium in Baltimore mount this challenging and years-long effort to depict a remote part of Australia? According to Jack Cover, the Aquarium’s general curator, Australia is well known for its unique flora and fauna. Many of the 100,000 species found there aren’t found anywhere else in the world.

The new exhibit offers a stark contrast to the Aquarium’s current tropical rain forest exhibit, said Cover, in addition to depicting a visually stunning, and colorful, environment, complete with flocks of rainbow lorikeets and Gouldian finches.

“We expect to introduce…visitors to Australia’s fascinating sights, animals and culture,” said Cover. “We have worked hard to make the exhibit as authentic as possible and hope that after their visit more people will want to travel to Australia and experience this incredible environment first-hand.”

An entire new 64,500-square-foot building – the Aquarium’s first expansion since 1990 – offers improved visitor amenities, the Old Bay CafĂ©, and Aquarium Shop, in addition to the exhibit. The Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Waterfront Park, under construction in front of the Aquarium, will open this year.

Admission to the Aquarium is $13.50 for children 3-11 and $19.50 for those 12 and older. Children under 3 are admitted free. Admission to the Australia exhibit is included in the ticket price.

The Aquarium is located at Pier 3, 501 East Pratt Street. For more information, call (410) 576-3800, or visit www.aqua.org.

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