You’d think it would be hard to compete with the Kansas City Zoo’s king penguins zipping through the water and waddling about. But another aquatic attraction inside the Helzberg Penguin Plaza is reeling in the families as well: the coral reef tank.
In particular, a certain blue fish.
“It looks like Nemoland!” says a boy as he runs up to the tank and taps on the glass. “Look, there’s Nemo’s friend, Dory!”
Sure enough, two blue tang dart along the glass, easy to spot in their distinctive blue, yellow and black coloring. As one swims around in circle after circle, it’s easy to imagine she keeps forgetting where she is — just like the blue fish with short-term memory loss in the Pixar movies.
Dory, a blue tang voiced by Ellen DeGeneres, was the sidekick to the protagonist orange-striped clown fish in “Finding Nemo.” She’ll swim into her own spotlight June 17 with the sequel, “Finding Dory.”
But it’s not all good news for the fish. Conservationists worry that with the increased popularity will come an increased demand, which could spell trouble for the wild blue tang and its natural habitat.
After “Finding Nemo” came out in 2003, demand for clown fish as pets rose as much as 40 percent, according to Hakai Magazine, a coastal science publication.
The Saving Nemo Conservation Fund in Australia, which protects and breeds clown fish, estimates that 400,000 blue tang are collected each year from the ocean for pets. But unlike clown fish, blue tang can’t breed in captivity, meaning all of the blue tang purchased in stores were taken from their ocean homes.
While most freshwater fish and some saltwater fish care for their young, blue tang lay hundreds of thousands of eggs to fend for themselves, said Leo Smith, assistant professor of ecology and biology at the University of Kansas. Their growth stages are triggered by certain ocean currents, smells and locations that are impossible to re-create in nursery tanks.
Aquariums and fish stores are still feeling the “Nemo effect” of people wanting their own clown fish or blue tang. At Fishtopia, a Kansas City, North, fish store, few families come in understanding the time and effort it takes to care for a tropical fish like the blue tang, said owner and general manager Chris Hufford.
“The fish are still, 80 percent of the time, referred to as ‘Nemo’ and ‘Dory,’ ” Hufford said. “The kids don’t know much about them beyond that.”
Blue tang live in the Indian and western and central Pacific oceans, grazing on algae on rock caves and coral reefs, said Curt Slocum, curator at Sea Life Aquarium in Crown Center.
Sea Life spreads its dozen or so blue tang among three exhibits. Vendors collect the fish in accordance with the conservationist mission of the aquarium, Slocum said. They’re careful not to deplete the population and, unlike some companies, they don’t use dynamite or cyanide to destroy coral reefs to capture the fish.
“We want to make sure our collectors are collecting in the most appropriate manner to ensure the long-term survival of the species as well as the habitat they live on,” he said.
Don’t expect these fish to stay small and cute like Dory; blue tang can grow up to a foot long, which means their aquarium should be at least 6 feet long and hold 180 gallons, Smith said.
They live from five to 10 years, Slocum said, and reach sexual maturity when they hit their year-old mark.
Blue tang don’t make the best pets in the first place; few people know that they’re actually venomous, with dorsal and anal fins used to sting enemies that threaten them. Smith knows how that feels — like a bad wasp sting.
He added clown fish and blue tang to his saltwater tank at home because, he said, “Even my kids were like, ‘We want Nemo and Dory.’ ” But then he made the mistake of reaching in to move the rocks in the tank. “The blue tang wedge themselves into the rock, and I just got dinged,” he said. “It was my own stupid fault.”
If you’re adamant about getting a saltwater fish that looks like Dory, Hufford suggested a yellowtail damselfish instead, which has the same bright colors but is much easier to care for.
Freshwater fish are even easier. But then again, they aren’t movie stars.
Kate Miller: 816-234-4077, @_kate_miller_
Where to find Dory
Still pining for a blue tang? Here’s a sampling of where to see them around town:
Where: 6800 Zoo Drive. The aquarium is inside Helzberg Penguin Plaza, which opened in 2013.
What else to do while you’re there: Trek up to the African area for the gorilla exhibit, where you can see a baby gorilla that just turned 1 year old on May 25.
Hours: 8 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays; 8 a.m.-5 p.m. weekends.
Cost: $14.50 for adults (12 and older), $11.50 for children (3-11), free for children 2 and younger
Where: 2475 Grand Blvd. The blue tang are in the shipwreck area, the underwater walk-through tunnel and the clown fish caves. You can find them on the Sea Life attraction map.
What else to do while you’re there: Explore the underwater ocean tunnel, where you walk underneath swimming sea turtles, sharks and multiple species of fish.
Hours: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Sunday to Thursday (last admission time 5 p.m.); 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Friday and Saturday (last admission time 6 p.m.).
Cost: $19 for adults (13 and older), $15 for children (3-12), free for children 2 years old and younger; tickets are cheaper if purchased online.
Where: 4720 N.E. Vivion Road, Kansas City, North.
What else to do while you’re there: Check out the tanks of other tropical fish, including seahorses and stringrays.
Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday to Thursday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday.
Where: 6503 W. 135th St., Overland Park. At this sporting goods store, you can see the tang in a 16,000-gallon tank arching over the entrance with other tropical fish.
What else to do while you’re there: Take a ride on the indoor Ferris wheel, feed your sweet tooth at a fudge shop and practice in an indoor sports simulator.
Hours: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday to Saturday; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday.