ST. PETERSBURG — The public will get a rare behind-the-scenes glimpse of a Pier Aquarium operation when its curator performs a high-wire act of sorts next week to restock a 20-foot-high cylindrical tank in which dozens of tropical fish perished.
In a task usually performed after hours, Butch Ringelspaugh, the aquarium's curator of exhibits, will don a safety harness, cross a platform resting on steel beams and place colorful tropical fish into their new home.
"We've never shown that to people,'' aquarium spokeswoman Emily Stehle said.
It will highlight a program planned for Dec. 19 that will celebrate the restocking of the largest of three "tube'' tanks rising through the Pier's first-floor lobby.
The event will be in contrast to the discovery one Friday in mid August that about 35 tropical fish had been lost because an electrical failure cut power to two air pumps that provided oxygen to the three lobby tanks.
Since then, a number of safeguards have been set up, including a back-up air blower that will start up automatically and a strobe-light alarm to alert the staff.
Late last week, Ringelspaugh took the St. Petersburg Times into the bowels of the Pier Aquarium, where the facility makes its own saltwater and tanks of tiny tropical fish were being kept in quarantine. Some will be transferred to the largest lobby tank, but the process of restocking the 1,000-gallon tank will be slow and deliberate, Ringelspaugh said.
It's important to make sure the fish introduced to the tank are free of disease and parasites and are compatible with each other, he said.
"Every species of fish has its own temperament and personality,'' he said, adding that tropical reef fish, the kind displayed in the tank, are more aggressive than sharks.
Larger fish from the aquarium's second-floor tanks also will be used to restock the big tube. When the process is complete, visitors will see a kaleidoscope of about 50 fish from around the world, among them blue tang, yellow tang, clown fish, damselfish and snapper.
In preparation for the new fish, some of which have been donated by Tampa Bay hobbyists, the large vertical tank was drained, cleaned, flushed and sterilized. The lights in the tube tank also were turned off to prevent the growth of algae.
Following the Aug. 13 mishap, the aquarium launched an appeal to raise $2,600 to replace the dead fish and to purchase new air blowers. That sum and more was raised, said Stehle. The money was used for cleanup supplies and mechanical upgrades, including the purchase of the air blowers, which were installed by an electrician who donated his services.
Aquarium president and chief executive officer E. Howard Rutherford said he was moved by the community's support.
The private, nonprofit aquarium and marine education center is a part of the St. Petersburg Ocean Team, a consortium of marine science, oceanographic and environmental research agencies and institutions. It has seen a drop in visitors and raised its Sunday admission prices in October.
With the Pier scheduled to be demolished in 2013 or 2014, the aquarium is looking for a temporary home. A group of community leaders, including aquarium board members, is working on that task, Rutherford said. The facility wants to return to the new Pier as the main attraction, he said.
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2283.