Sharks and rays to arrive for Crown Center aquarium

The stars of Kansas City’s new aquarium will arrive with a splash today after an overland journey from the Florida Keys.

A specially rigged tractor-trailer, with a police escort for show, is scheduled to pull up this afternoon to deliver several blacknosed sharks and southern stingrays. They are the largest of the roughly 5,000 creatures that will populate Sea Life at Crown Center, which opens on April 6, well ahead of schedule.

The sharks and rays will get the red carpet treatment, but other species have been arriving more discreetly by air and land transport over the last couple of weeks. Deliveries will continue as workers hasten to ready Kansas City’s first large aquarium for the public.

Several hundred species, from seahorses to colorful Nemo-like clown fish, will occupy 30 tanks and displays. The largest tank, with 130,000 gallons, features three tunnels allowing visitors to watch the sharks and rays glide overhead.

Once the tank walls are cleaned and the construction debris is cleared away, Sea Life will offer a meandering 28,000 square feet of aquatic experiences. It’s designed to be magical, but there are a lot of practicalities that go into making something on this scale work. Stocking the tanks is not the least of them.

“With 5,000 creatures, it’s not the kind of thing where one truck shows up and dumps them all in,” said Mendy Rose, marketing manager for Sea Life.

Most of the animals are air-freighted, but some must arrive by truck.

The sharks and rays, procured from the wild by Dynasty Marine in Marathon, Fla., are making the 27-hour highway journey under the constant attention of marine caretakers who ride in the trailer with them.

“They monitor the water quality the entire trip,” said Aaron Sprowl, displays curator for Sea Life in Kansas City. “They’re constantly measuring ammonia and water pH to make sure there’s no adverse effect that could potentially kill the animals.”

The sharks alone are each worth several thousand dollars.

“Obviously, you don’t want to lose an animal like that on the way up,” Sprowl said.

When they arrive, crews will gradually drain the transport tanks and add water from Sea Life to avoid shocking the animals with an abrupt change in pH and salinity. The introduction into their new home could take an hour or more.

All but one of the tanks at Sea Life contain salt water. The large one required 42,900 pounds of sea salt. But there is a lot more to maintaining a healthy habitat than just adding salt.

“I like to compare this to NASA and astronauts in space,” said Sprowl, a Kansas City area native who has a degree in marine biology from the University of Miami. “The aquarium is like a spaceship, and we have to maintain everything for those fish to live in that spaceship.”

That requires a life-support system that operates around the clock.

Two 25-horsepower motors in the “mission control” room move 1,500 gallons of water a minute, meaning the large tank gets refreshed about every hour and a half.

Sea Life starts with ordinary tap water but treats it to remove all the things that humans need. The sea salt introduces the electrolytes and minerals that fish need.

But anyone who has ever owned a home aquarium knows they need continuing care.

The water in the Sea Life ocean tank goes through an elaborate process to keep it clean. It is first run through four sand filters to remove biological matter. Then it is zapped by two ultraviolet sterilizers to remove potentially harmful bacteria. A protein skimmer injects ozone and creates foam which raises remaining particulates to the top for removal.

But that’s not all. Before the water is reintroduced to the tank, it is run through a “bio tower” where bacteria remove ammonia and nitrites.

All the while, a heat exchanger keeps the water about 75 degrees.

Sprowl has a team of three aquarium specialists who monitor water quality in all the aquarium’s tanks

The team also prepares all the meals. That is particularly important when you have sharks in the same tank with exotic and expensive fish. The sharks will be fed three times a week with restaurant-quality seafood. Portions will be based on the sharks’ body weight.

“That keeps them satiated so they are not hungry,” Sprowl said, “and therefore they won’t eat the fish.”