ST. PETERSBURG — They have captivated visitors for years, dozens of brilliant tropical fish inside the Pier Aquarium's 20-foot high cylindrical tank in the lobby.
But late Friday afternoon, the fish began to act peculiar. Some sank, others turned belly up. It wasn't long before someone noticed they were dying.
"They noticed the fish gasping for air," said Butch Ringelspaugh, the curator of exhibits at the aquarium. "I immediately got the air (pumps) going, but it was too late."
The 35 or so fish in the tank — the largest of a trio of "showstopper" displays created to entice visitors to visit the 22-year-old aquarium upstairs — perished.
Ringelspaugh said an electrical failure cut power to two air pumps that provided oxygen. Fifteen minutes without the machines was enough to kill the fish, he said. Among the casualties were damselfish, vlamingi tangs, koran angelfish, cinnamon clownfish, porkfish and foot-long orbicular batfish.
Now the aquarium is asking the public to help raise $2,600 to replace the exotic fish and purchase stronger air pumps.
"This is a lesson learned," Ringelspaugh said. "Of the six years I have been here, something like this has never happened."
The fundraising effort comes as the aquarium is looking for a new downtown home to move into by 2012. But those plans will not affect the aquarium's intention to invest in the tube display in the meantime, said aquarium spokeswoman Emily Stehle.
Online, the nonprofit aquarium is soliciting donations. Stehle said the aquarium had 88,500 visitors last year and has an annual budget of about $700,000, mostly generated through gift shop sales and entrance fees.
Ringelspaugh was notified of the power failure by the staff and visitors who noticed the unusual activity in the tanks about 4:45 p.m. Friday He said there was no backup power system.
"I know people will question why the backup didn't work and what we could've done," he said. But "the tubes," as the public aquarium display is known, was not built with a backup power system, nor can it be updated to include one, he said.
Ringelspaugh said the pumps were most likely overworked. The tube display was built 15 years ago, and the pumps were intended to service fewer fish. As the years have gone by, however, the number of fish in the tanks has increased and the existing fish have grown. That means the demand for oxygen in the tank most likely increased over time, he said.
Visitors to the pier Monday hardly seemed to notice that the large tube display was unlighted and covered with white poster board. A sign explained that the display was being serviced. The two smaller tube displays were lighted and swarming with small fish.
"I feel bad for the fish," said Nicolas Weathersbee, owner of St. Petersburg Candle Gallery.
Reach Luis Perez at (727)892-2271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.