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The Boston Globe

Metro

Aquarium’s giant tank is a renovated marvel

Old fish, new fish take in their swank harborside home

The divers carefully lowered themselves into the tank and swam slowly for a few minutes, giving the sharks time to relax before they closed in. Their first target was a 3-foot bonnethead shark they call Freckles. She’s small and cute, but you have to watch your fingers around her.

Circling closer, the divers corralled Freckles and managed to get her into a net. Then everything began to move very quickly. Within seconds, the staff members of the New England Aquarium hoisted the net out of the tank and lowered Freckles onto a plastic sheet in a bin filled with water.

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Freckles thrashed her tail as a staff member scooped her up in the plastic and rushed her to the back of a waiting white box truck that looks like any other white box truck, except for the fact that it has a pool built inside. Soon, the truck would be gone, headed up the highway to downtown Boston.

By now, the aquarium staffers have become master animal movers, running something like an overland Noah’s Ark, as they return thousands of ocean creatures from their temporary home in Quincy to a newly renovated 200,000-gallon giant ocean tank.

The $17.3 million project began last fall. Gutting and renovating the tank, the aquarium’s central exhibit, required it to be empty for months, and they needed somewhere to put its residents.

The staff has transferred 800 tropical fish, 4 sea turtles, a southern ray, 4 eels, and 59 penguins back to the aquarium.

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So in 2010, the aquarium bought a brick warehouse in Fore River Shipyard and spent $6 million turning it into a temporary home for sea creatures, including reinforcing the foundation to hold a quarter-million pounds of water.

Divers and staff at the New England Aquarium worked to move a bonnethead shark to its new home in the renovated Giant Ocean Tank.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

Divers and staff at the New England Aquarium worked to move a bonnethead shark to its new home in the renovated Giant Ocean Tank.

They then transported 800 tropical fish, four large sea turtles, a southern ray with a 4½ foot wingspan, four electric green moray eels, and 59 penguins down the road to Quincy. Though their aquarium habitat is outside the tank, the penguins don’t cotton to construction noise and dust.

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The Animal Care Center, as they call it, is not flashy. It’s made for life support; the tanks look like they were built from an Erector set. Back at the downtown facility, the fish are accustomed to an elaborate underwater landscape. Here, inside the shark’s tank, the décor is limited to a bunch of those rubber strips that drag across your hood in a car wash. The strips are cheap and easy to clean and do a decent job of breaking up the monotony for the residents of the 6-foot-deep tank.

In addition to building five large holding tanks, they moved the aquarium’s marine mammal rescue operation to the facility. Last year, they cared for 242 rescued sea turtles, and the fact that the aquarium now owns this off-site facility increases its ability to build new collections.

“You have to be prepared to grab exotic animals when they’re available,” said Tony LaCasse, the aquarium’s spokesman. Then you need to be able to quarantine them. The new site also gives the aquarium a mini-retirement community for older animals, like the 45-year-old silvery tarpons who make their home in the ocean tank.

Last fall, the aquarium began the process of moving everyone out of the tank in Boston, filling lots of plastic bags with exotic fish and driving them down I-93 to Quincy. The penguins, who are air-breathers, traveled in cat carriers in the back of a refrigerated truck. Their pool in Quincy is enclosed by walls, a cold and terribly loud room – the African and rockhopper penguins are exceptional shriekers and squalkers. The couples each have a territory that consists of a plastic square on the ground semi-enclosed by plastic gates, and they expend a good bit of chatter defending their incomplete castles.

And after all that, the aquarium followed up the largest move in its history by making it even bigger. It went collecting.

In April, aquarium divers made three gathering trips to the Bahamas and collected more than 1,000 new fish, took them by boat to Florida in live wells, then overnighted them to Quincy in plastic bags full of water. They used FedEx.

When construction on the ocean tank was completed in May, the tank was flushed several times with water from Boston Harbor, then it was filled and decorated to mimic a Caribbean reef. The turtles went back in first – they’re air breathers – as well as some smaller fish to serve as canaries in the coal mine. They survived and so the staff began the massive process of moving everyone back to Boston, species by species. The sharks they saved for last; all the other fish needed time to get acclimated and find hiding spots in the reef before the predators at the apex of the food chain joined them.

After getting Freckles safely into the truck that day in Quincy, Julie Cavin, an aquarium veterinarian, gave the shark a quick check. Stress is the big concern, but things looked good. Minutes later, they repeated the process with a second bonnethead named Spot. Then it was time to go.

Barbara Bailey, the assistant curator who has been running the arrivals and departures in Quincy, hopped behind the wheel of the truck. She had mixed emotions about seeing the sharks leave. “We put our heart and soul into working with these fish, so it’s a bittersweet moment, like sending your kids off to elementary school and into the big world.”

But there’s no time for long goodbyes. They’ve got to hustle; the faster the fish get to the giant ocean tank, the better. So Bailey steered the ordinary-looking box truck full of sharks through the winding streets of Quincy, onto the Southeast Expressway, into Boston.

What awaited the sharks inside the refurbished tank is a source of great excitement at the aquarium. When the 24-foot-deep giant ocean tank was built in 1969, it was the largest in the world. There are now several larger tanks at other aquariums, but with the renovation, the tank will resume its place among the world’s elite by taking a step back in time.

The new reef – a complex fiberglass construction hand-fabricated in Charlestown and painted in all the lollipop colors – is designed to represent a pre-Columbian Caribbean reef, before global warming and pollution took their toll on the ocean floor. As part of the redesign of the exhibit, the fish will be strictly limited to those that would have been found around such reefs. And with the additional fish collected from the Bahamas, the number of fish in the tank has grown from 800 to 2,000, which is believed to be more than any other single tank in the world, according to LaCasse. There have also been many structural changes to the tank, most noticeable to visitors the fact that the viewing windows along the spiral ramp that circles the tank have been enlarged so that they come down lower to the ground. That makes it easier for young children to see, and the glass is thinner for better ogling.

When the bonnethead sharks were lowered into the new tank, they were cordoned off for a few minutes in a floating pen, giving them time to acclimate to the water and calm down — just like acclimating goldfish to a home tank. After a few minutes, the veterinarian gave the OK, and two divers in the tank lowered the gate to the pen.

In the viewing area at the top of the tank, which has gone through several major improvements and will soon include an area with all new exhibits, a large crowd of aquarium staff had gathered to watch the first of the sharks set off to explore their new home. Their return was a major milestone; after all this effort, the long process was nearly complete. The giant ocean tank is the last step in a $43 million renovation and expansion that has been ongoing for six years.

Inside the tank, three divers followed Freckles and Spot, looking for any signs of trouble.

After a few minutes, Sherrie Floyd Cutler, the head diver, surfaced and shouted: “Did anyone see that?” She was smiling.

One of the sharks had just had a run-in with Myrtle, the 560-pound green sea turtle who is the unquestioned queen of the tank. Myrtle is about 90 – the aquarium isn’t exactly sure of her age – and has been in the tank since 1970. She runs the place; any newcomers have to pass her inspection.

As the sharks made their first laps, one of them met Myrtle head-on, then quickly veered away. This happens all the time in the giant ocean tank, and Myrtle’s classic out-of-my-way move is a dope-slap with her flipper.

In the tank, it is a welcome sign that life has returned to normal.

Billy Baker can be reached at billybaker@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.

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