Diver Magazine Takes A Back Lot Tour


Toronto, Believe It Or Not, You’re Gonna Get An Aquarium. Any Day Now!

By Stephen Weir

For once, the corporate name really does say it all.  Ripley’s is about to open a new aquarium in Toronto, and given the number of companies that tried and failed, it really is a case of Believe it Or Not!
The Toronto Aquarium - How it Will Look This Fall

Construction continues on the Aquarium. The base of the CN Tower in back

“Yes we have been working non-stop on this for almost two years, but the project has been a ten year struggle.” said Andy Dehart, the Ripley’s shark expert who is overseeing the daily arrival of live fish at the soon-to-open aquarium. 

“Some people thought it would be built in Niagara Falls, with our other properties {the Ripley’s Museum and the Great Wolf Lodge), but here we are at the base of the CN Tower, only a few weeks away from (our debut).”

Several companies have been jockeying to build an aquarium in Canada’s largest city over the past 10 decade, but one by one ended up floating to the top of the tank. There was a plan  by Aquarium Developments Corporation to take over the basement and first three floors of CBC’s downtown Toronto headquarters for a subway level aquarium. Another company wanted to put a $60 million aquarium inside the now close theme park Ontario Place them park or the adjacent Exhibition Place – the hallowed grounds of the city’s annual Canadian National Exhibition Place.
Put your hand inside: see what the shark had for dinner
With the support of the Federal and Provincial Governments and the City of Toronto, the funding and the land were finally found for this project. In September 2011 ground was broke for the state-of-the-art facility and the construction has steamed ahead on schedule.

It is a 100% Canadian installation (Ripley’s is owned by the Jim Pattison Group, Canada's third largest privately held company) and it is being built on the most recognized plot of land in the country. The CN tower looms directly overhead. The Metro Toronto Convention Centre is next door and there is an enclosed walkway to Union Station. The Maple Leafs” Air Canada Centre is at the end of the block and the Harbourfront district and Lake Ontario is a short walk away.

This is Ground Zero for tourism in the “Big Smoke” and although it’s not yet open, the building is attracting attention. School groups. Convention planners. Brides-to-be.  Bookings at the Ripley’s Aquarium of Canada (the Believe It, Or Not is silent) have been made well into 2015. 

As of writing, only a few of the 13,000 fresh and saltwater fish have moved into their new home.  The fish arrive several times daily from holding facilities in New York State and Nova Scotia.

While Diver Magazine was touring the Ripley’s Aquarium a few weeks ago, Dehart was in the delivery bay watching as his team of fish handlers “matched” the water in which a school of small Florida Keys reef fish swam inside a towable metal aquarium-on-wheels, with the water in their new home. Salinity and temperature levels are duplicated to reduce the physical stress of the fishes’ transition.
Andy Dehart, Shark Advisor and the man in charge of the fish in Toronto

Andy Dehart, who is a former marine biologist at Washington’s National Aquarium, and also the on-air Discovery Channel’s “Shark Advisor”, is happy to see that his little charges survived the road trip, but he is waiting for the Big Guys: the 10ft long sharks.

Dehart likes sharks. No, no make that he LOVES sharks. He lives to study them (often very close up). And he especially likes swimming with sharks, in fact, the 40-year old PADI trained master diver has hand-fed Tiger Sharks in the Caribbean.  He knows that his sharks are going to be the big draw in Toronto.

The largest tank in Canada’s largest aquarium will be home to sharks, rays and other large fish and turtles. Called Shark Lagoon/Dangerous Reef, the visitor experience will begin inside a acrylic underwater tunnel, which leads into the main viewing gallery. This will be the home of 14 different species of sharks, including Sand Tiger, Sandbar, Nurse and Reef Sharks.  Dehart is awaiting delivery of sawfish, barracudas, moray eels, spadefish, tarpon and green sea turtles (who are currently in Nova Scotia awaiting transportation).
Andrew Dewart under curved dome window
“We will have quite a number of sharks in the aquarium. The species that we have chosen, noteably the Sand Tiger Shark, will live longer in captivity than they would do in the ocean,” said Dehart. “ With excellent food, and good medical care (the aquarium has two Toronto vets and a US based fish expert) there is no telling how large these sharks will get and how long they will live.” The Aquarium has pledged to conduct ongoing breeding programs for the sand tiger sharks and other species in their collection.
 “This is a for-profit company , so we are very much aware of the visitor’s experience,” explained Dehart. “ Guests can watch the sharks being fed. They can interact with divers inside the tanks and we plan to have all night programs where kids can sleep with the sharks.”

There are a lot of theres! There are over 100 visitor experiences where people get to interact with the fish.  There are clear acrylic tunnels where children can crawl through a tank filled with fish.  There is a concave window that you can stand under and watch alewife fish as they school in a moving ball over your head.  The upward wow in the window will make it all look larger than life size, and the slope allows for waste and food matter to slide out of view.

There are petting ponds with rays, and a life size model of an open mouth shark where you are encouraged to reach into its stomach and pull out its last meal. Remember in the movie Jaws how one Great White fish had swallowed a license plate” This exhibit lets you find out first hand what a shark may swallow.
Mobile Fish Transport Tank
There are no plans yet to allow divers into the tanks.  Ripley’s is aware that other aquariums have found scuba programs profitable and in demand.  The aquarium has a huge locker /change room for divers and will be hiring divers to clean the tanks and put on demonstrations for the public. Escorting scuba tourists could soon be in the cards.

“ We will provide guests with an interactive, educational experience while building an understanding of the aquatic world” says Dehart. 

The 12,500-square-metre (135,000- square-foot) building with 5.7-million litres (1.5-million gallons) of marine and freshwater habitats is soon to be one of the largest aquariums in North America.  It is larger than the Vancouver Aquarium (Canada’s only other large aquarium) in terms of floor space, but the BC public aquarium has larger tanks and more species. (6000 compared to Toronto’s 450).

What will make the Toronto experience different than most other aquariums is its large Great Lakes exhibition tank.  There are 17 exhibition tanks featuring Canadian fish and one of the largest has fish that one might see if you walked five minutes south of the Aquarium and dove into Lake Ontario.

Great Lakes fish aren’t sexy in terms of their colouring and their body shapes.  Most aquariums take a pass on pike and rock bass, but not Ripley’s.  They are working to make the fresh water tanks visually exciting and educational.

Large mouth bass, freshwater salmon and even the hulking, long-living sturgeon will soon take up residency in Toronto.   Dehart’s team has taken some liberties with what a Great Lakes fresh water fish is, and will be bringing invasive species such as the carp, and fish that are no longer found in the Lakes such as the  strange looking primitive Paddlefish (Mississippi Spoonfish).
Behind the fish exhibits there are rows of water tanks
It appears that the new aquarium has been designed to do two things – to move large groups of people efficiently through the building and to have the tanks and pipes constructed in such a way that as much water as possible can be reclaimed, cleaned and reused.

Touring the building during construction is much like getting a back lot tour of a Hollywood movie studio. No need to wind your way from the shark experience to the Jelly tank to the kelp forest – there are doors that lead to the employee short cuts.  Being back stage one is struck by just how many water pipes, heating ducts and electrical units are needed to keep the fish happy, the customers warm or cool and to keep the lights on in the brightest part of Toronto.

Being behind the scenes one sees that there is indeed a lot of Hollywood involved. The brightly coloured coral reefs are not real.  The kelp is synthetic too.  The Aquarium will be growing live coral, but, the majority of what you see is the reality of being in a northern climate and is meant to enhance the viewing experience (and fool the fish).

“ The thing is that this is a labour of love, a job of passion, an understanding of marine biology,” said Dehart.  “ Our marine unit are crazy about the subject matter and we want to pass on that passion to our guests.”


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