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New exhibits add wow factor to UGA Aquarium on Skidaway
Interim Director Bob Williams checks out a nurse shark

JUST A FEW STEPS past the lobby of the University of Georgia’s Marine Education Center and Aquarium (MECA) on Skidaway Island, visitors will soon be able to enter an underwater world, transformed this summer thanks to a gift from a friendly neighbor.

A dark purple ceiling, “deep blue sea” colored walls, modified lighting and new displays are part of $170,000 worth of renovations giving the 35-year-old aquarium a new “wow” quality. As an arm of the UGA Marine Extension Center, the aquarium has long focused on the classroom experience, mostly using the tanks and exhibits to enhance what occurred in class, according to Bob Williams, acting director of MECA.

“The renovation is really meant to appeal more to the casual visitor, the general public as opposed to the school groups,” he says.

The public will get a first look at the aquarium’s makeover at this Saturday’s Skidaway Institute of Oceanography (SkIO) Marine Science Day open house from 12 to 5, with a ribbon cutting at noon. MECA is one of a handful of marine science entities who are housed at SkIO’s 710-acre site 16 miles from Savannah.

The idea behind the aquarium’s new look is to give visitors more of an underwater experience, according to Williams and to Sue Finkle, Aquarium Curator.As guests step down into the downstairs gallery, they are lured to the brightly glowing wall tanks housing undersea creatures normally found in the ocean along coastal Georgia and Florida. A four foot long nurse shark, a guitar fish, a skate, a snook, and a flirtatious octopus named Diego are just a few of the marine animals living in the tanks along the wall.

A long nose gar swimming among a school of salt water catfish is the longest resident of the facility, over 30 years.

None of the original fish tanks were relocated, but one has been converted to a replica of a salt marsh bank, created specially for MECA by the contractor for the renovation. It comes complete with artificial fiddler crab holes and marsh grass, and a real piece of driftwood draped with real Spanish moss.

A diamondback terrapin and three species of fish occupy the tank, which has sixteen inches of water depth.A new diorama of Gray’s Reef is the centerpiece of the exhibit, and motivated the renovation project.

“In 2004 Gray’s Reef approached us with an award for $100,000 for the exhibit area,” says Williams.

Gray’s Reef National Marine Sanctuary offices are also SkIO tenants.Marine Sanctuary staff was looking for a way to educate people about the reef.

“It’s 17 miles offshore, you can’t just go visit on a Sunday afternoon,” says George Sedberry, Sanctuary Superintendent. “The aquarium is a great way for us to do it. We were happy to fund their renovation.”

With the funds secured from Gray’s Reef, MECA allocated an additional $70,000 in state monies and contracted with Aquarium Innovations, an Atlanta firm whose work has included the Georgia Aquarium.Finishing touches will take place this week on the Gray’s Reef diorama, which will use interactive video touch screens to identify and illuminate different fish, coral, and sponges depicted in the diorama.

A new horseshoe-shaped touch tank in the upstairs gallery is expected to be the most popular addition to the aquarium. An instructor will stand inside the horseshoe while two levels of tank space allow children of different ages to have access to friendly ocean animals like horseshoe crabs, hermit crabs and starfish.

A hands on reef model with rubberized sea anemones, sponges and coral, offers “a fun touchy feely thing for kids,” says Finkle.

Completed in 1972, the aquarium is perhaps the best known, and definitely the most visited, of the marine science entities housed at SkIO (which rhymes with Leo.) The aquarium averages over 20,000 visitors a year.

Over the decades, all that wear and tear, plus the corrosion that comes with a salt water environment, took its toll on the aquarium.“We have salt water running through the building, plus we’re 200 yards from the river. Salt has its way with things out here,” says Williams.Less visible improvements include new floors and fresh paint in several classrooms, replacement of old countertops and corroded or outdated HVAC, electrical and plumbing systems.

This year’s facelift completes nearly $500,000 in upgrades to UGA’s facilities on the SkIO campus in the past three years. Highlights include a nature walk and pier, and an enclosed porch for additional heated and cooled classroom space. A new floating dock was built to replace the original.

Williams hopes to make even more improvements in 2008. He hopes to work with the Bamboo Farm & Coastal Gardens on landscaping the expansive lawn. “We hope to take half the lawn and convert it to native plants,” he says.

Inside the Open House

At this Saturday’s Marine Science Day at Skidaway Institute of Oceanography (SkIO), all kinds of technological or biological gadgets, activities, projects and creatures will be on display in a version of show and tell that’s sure to hook kids and adults alike.

Ten science and education organizations operate out of the 710-acre SkIO campus, at the north end of Skidaway Island, and all will be showing off their jazziest bells and whistles on Saturday. Check out several new displays and returning favorites that are vying for visitors’ attention this weekend.

SkIO’s mockup of the Navy tower and solar-powered sensor they use to transmit ocean data over the internet--wind speed, wave height, and chlorophyll density, and the like.

New radar, plotters and depth sounders on the Sea Dawg, UGA’s research vessel. The Sea Dawg and SkIO’s research vessel Savannah will be open for tours.

An underwater remote operated vehicle, normally used to video the ocean floor and collect data at Gray’s Reef, that visitors can “drive” around the bottom of a swimming pool while staying dry on the pool deck.

SkIOcache, a “high tech treasure hunt” spread out over the SkIO campus, with geocache coordinate clues for guests with GPS devices and printed scavenger-hunt style hints, with photos, for everyone else.

A life size walk-through model of a whale provided by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

Touch tanks in the UGA Shellfish Research Lab and the UGA aquarium.

Plus, two road races at 8 am; a noon ribbon cutting at the aquarium; talks on snakes, sharks, gators; a career day session; two Fish Feeding Frenzies; two behind the scenes aquarium tours; an open house at Georgia Public Broadcasting’s WSVH radio station; crabbing on the dock; information booths and displays; and music by Savannah Arts Academy’s Skylite Jazz Band. Food will be available for purchase.