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One by one, two by two, residents find home in new video tank at Florida Aquarium

Senior marine biologist Shawn Garner prepares to release a male Kemp's Ridley sea turtle into a new exhibit, the aquarium's second largest, at the Florida Aquarium in Tampa. [BRONTE WITTPENN | Times]
Published Sep. 12, 2018

TAMPA — The Kemp's ridley sea turtle has no name yet but he does have a new home where he can live safely after escaping death in the wild from an injury that made it difficult to eat.

On Wednesday, the 95-pound reptile joined a 63-pound loggerhead named Ludwig as the latest additions to a renovated 100,000-gallon tank at the Florida Aquarium's new "Heart of the Sea" exhibit.

When it opens Oct. 6, the exhibit will showcase the aquarium's conservation and veterinary work and, through video technology, provide guests an up-close look at the inhabitants.

PREVIOUS: Florida Aquarium grows coral in captivity in hopes of saving reefs in the wild

In all, 410 creatures representing 11 species will live in the tank — curtained off for two years as it was converted from a habitat called "Bait Ball" for the fish school that swam in spherical formation.

The new residents have been added in phases.

First, a month ago, came a shark, followed by five southern sting rays, a school of tarpon, two hog fish and then the turtles. Today, a three-foot Goliath grouper that can grow as large as eight feet long will be move in. Additions will continue through the end of September.

"Putting in all the fish at once can be bad for water quality because of all the sudden waste," said Amy Tillman, the aquarium associate curator. "We need to monitor the water and make sure each new fish is getting their right food consumption and are navigating safely."

The only tank larger at the aquarium is the 500,000-gallon Coral Reef Habitat, with 82 species and 2,000 animals. But at Heart of the Sea, guests can get a closer look at the marine life inside thanks to two underwater video cameras, another hanging overhead and cameras divers will wear inside.

Live footage from the cameras will be broadcast on 70-inch screens flanking the tank's viewing window.

The tank is designed for more than entertainment, said Mike Terrell, director of husbandry at the aquarium. It also will educate the public about conservation efforts.

"We do a lot of work outside our walls," Terrell said. "This tells the story of our conservation work with coral, sharks and turtles."

The coral in the tank will be fake. But, in two nurseries on its 20-acre Center for Conservation campus in Apollo Beach, the aquarium is growing real coral to be planted on dying reefs in the wild.

When it comes to sharks, the aquarium is researching the cryogenic freezing of semen so females in captivity can be artificially inseminated.

"This nurse shark is our ambassador that will bring attention to that work," curator Tillman said.

And while the aquarium already rehabilitates turtles in Tampa, it also is building a $4 million, 10,000-square-foot center at the Apollo Beach campus to expand the effort. Completion is scheduled for early next year.

Still, no amount of rehabilitation would return the two new Heart of the Sea residents to the wild.

Ludwig the Loggerhead, who comes from Sea World Orlando, has lived in captivity since the 1970s and cannot survive on his own. The Kemp's ridley was found in Cape Cod two years ago with so much scar tissue in his throat that eating is difficult. The cause of that damage is unknown.

Just moments after the turtles were placed in the tank, divers were swimming alongside to ensure they're adapting. They're also scrutinizing the personality of the Kemp's ridley so they'll know what to call him.

"By opening day," curator Timmins said. "He'll have a name by then."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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