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Aquarium to shed light on reef

Twelve feet from the surface, stingrays rest buried under sand, while sharks and grouper circle the colorful Caribbean reef nearby. The curious peer into these depths and glimpse the sea life typically seen only by divers. In the shallow water, curious children pet starfish, sea horses and tame stingrays.

This is Scott Konger's vision. But it was also the dream of Konger's father, Anthony, 62, who was Konger's fishing, diving and business partner until August when the elder Konger died during a diving trip.

Within several months, the vision and the dream will become reality when Konger opens his 100,000-gallon aquarium near the Sponge Docks in Tarpon Springs.

"What I've had in mind is to recreate a reef as if you were diving," said Konger, 31, who designed the massive viewing tank. "We wanted to be in the Sponge Docks area because we thought it would fit in well with the atmosphere and the tourists in the area."

Konger's Coral Sea Aquarium is being built in the Riverwalk shopping complex on the west end of Dodecanese Boulevard and is scheduled to be completed in January. Its inhabitants are to be a mix of sea creatures indigenous to the warm waters of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico.

An avid scuba diver who has studied marine biology, Konger plans to collect the creatures for the aquarium himself. He also will collect rocks from the Gulf and build a reef.

Konger, his father and brother, Ryan, 13, were diving about 25 miles off Anclote Key in August when the elder Konger, 60 feet down, headed for the surface. He seemed to struggle for air, Scott Konger said. Aboard their pleasure boat, Special K, Scott Konger performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation to no avail. Doctors believe his father suffered a heart attack, Konger said.

A period of mourning slowed the project for a while, but Konger said he now approaches his work with vigor in memory of his father.

"To me it gives us more incentive than ever to keep it going," said Bob Ackley, the contractor who has been working on the project and who has been a friend of Anthony Konger's for five years.

"You figure that's the least you could do. It's kind of a memorial to him," Ackley said.

Ackley and Scott Konger stood at the base of the tank recently, looking through a hole cut in the roof. The sea plants will need the sun, which also will help light the tank and heat the water to more than 70 degrees, Konger said. The hole will be covered by a removable screen.

The tank walls, made of concrete and steel, are nearly a foot thick, Ackley said. The tank is 40 feet long, 30 feet wide and 12 feet deep.

The 14 glass windows each will be 2 inches thick. They are evenly spaced on three sides and are 8 feet tall.

Next to the tank will be three 1,000-gallon tanks for marine life from the Pacific Ocean. Beyond those tanks is a waist-high petting tank where visitors will be allowed to pet harmless sea creatures. Konger plans to keep the ticket price under $5.

Konger's interest in sea life started early. On visits to his grandmother in Florida, the Indiana native fell in love with the sea.

"At 10 I got interested in marine biology," he said. "They thought it was unusual in the middle of the state."

Several years later, Konger and his family moved to Tarpon Springs. Before long, Konger earned his diving certification. After graduating from college, he took a job in Sarasota at an aquarium that sold saltwater fish and invertebrates as pets.

Konger moved back to Tarpon Springs and, with the help of his father, about five years ago opened a business called Fishy Business Aquariums at 4308 Louis Ave. in Holiday.

Konger sells fish and supplies and designs aquariums similar to the one being built at 852 Dodecanes Blvd., but on a smaller scale. He operates the business with two brothers, Kurt, 26, and Dane, 23.

His father's death was sobering and put life into stark perspective.

"When that happened I realized that it could happen anytime," Konger said. "You do have a limited time here so don't worry so much about those everyday little things.

"But I definitely miss him on this project."

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