Doug Robinson: The Loveland Living Planet Aquarium: A 17-year odyssey

Published: Monday, May 26 2014 12:34 a.m. MDT

The aquarium is 136,000 square feet. There are 30 tons of sand and 300,000 gallons of man-made salt water in one tank alone (and 700,000 gallons total). The 40-foot-long acrylic shark tunnel cost $500,000.

Andersen considers the facility a model of efficiency. Over the course of several weeks, the pristine water that is required for tanks containing highly sensitive coral reef and invertebrates, is “polished” and filtered and then sent to the shark tank, and after it has been used there it gets “polished” and filtered again and sent to the penguin tank. “After the penguins get done with it, we can’t use it anymore,” says Andersen. What little water that is left after evaporation is slowly released into the sewer system. According to Andersen, the Draper aquarium uses the same amount of water as the old facility even though there is 10 times more water in the tanks.

“We use more water for drinking fountains, toilets and landscaping sprinklers in a year (than in the fish tanks),” says Andersen. “Most of our water goes to landscaping.”

The aquarium is a massive undertaking. The act of securing animals itself is no small feat. One of the aquarium’s sea turtles came from a hospital in Florida, where it recovered after being struck by a boat and then attacked by a shark. Such injuries leave air trapped in the turtle’s shell, which means it’s too buoyant to dive underwater and therefore can’t be returned to the wild. Aquarium officials glue a pouch to the shell and fill it with weights to allow the animal to dive (the amount of the weights has to be fine-tuned to achieve the right level of buoyancy). Since turtles shed, the weights must be replaced and adjusted again every few months. To bring the turtle from Florida to Utah, Andersen had to arrange for an employee to sit on the jump seat of a Fed Ex plane — which necessitated a clearance by Homeland Security — so she could pour salt water on the animal’s eyes every few minutes and keep the shell smeared with Vaseline.

The penguins were flown from Galveston to Utah on Continental Airlines because the airline offers a temperature-controlled environment. The otter came from Long Island in dog crates. The toucans were placed on seats in the two rows of a Southwest Airlines jet. The sharks were trucked from Albuquerque, California and Las Vegas.

In the end, Andersen believes the aquarium serves as more than a diversion. “Of all those who come here, some percentage of them might be inspired to go into marine biology or the sciences as a career,” he says. “And in a bigger context, this might help them understand how the planet works and how animals live and how everyone in the world is connected to everything else. Then we’ll make better decisions.”

For his part, Andersen, 48, has finally settled into the life people were urging him to seek years ago, with a career, and a family (he married three years ago). Instead of working 12 to 14 hours a day, he is down to nine or 10.

“It feels great just to walk out there,” he says from his office. “I was just out there a few minutes ago and saw hundreds of school kids running around. Their excitement is what I felt as a little kid watching TV or looking at books, but now it’s a real place they can come and see things only inches away. That feels really good.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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