March 24, 2008

In the Bahamas, Huge Open-Air Marine Habitat Has a ‘Lost Continent’ Theme

What's it like to live in a far-off place most of us see only on a vacation? Foreign Correspondence is an interview with someone who lives in a spot you may want to visit.

Michelle Liu, 42, is vice president of Marine Aquarium Operations at Atlantis Paradise Island Resort, in the Bahamas, off the island of New Providence. She's a native of Eleuthera, another island in the Bahamas.

Q. Marine Aquarium Operations: What does that mean?

A. On the property, just in fish aquariums _ not including where we have dolphins _ are over 11 million gallons of marine habitat. The dolphin habitat by itself is 7 million gallons of seawater. We have 11 major exhibits.

It's set up like open-air lagoons, making us the largest open-air marine habitat in the world next to Mother Nature. We have well over 50,000 marine animals in our collections, including over 200 species of fish, turtles, dolphins and other creatures.

The resort is based around the myth of the lost continent of Atlantis; the displays are set up to reflect this. The Dig, for instance, looks like it was "excavated" by explorers who found all these rooms submerged in water. The one where _ according to the story line _ clay pots were stored is now the perfect habitat for green moray eels. We have 12 large ones.

One room, set up like it was where people from Atlantis dumped their organic waste, is perfect for lobsters, which are scavengers.

Adjacent to it is a 2.3-million gallon lagoon called The Ruins, where we exhibit fish from around our islands. We're most proud of the three mantas we have: They're the only ones in captivity in the Western Hemisphere.

The biggest, Zeus, is just over 12 feet in width. He's absolutely beautiful. The smaller ones are Adonis and Achilles.

We have more than 22,000 fish in the Ruins, which represents a sunken boulevard in Atlantis. You won't see a typical reef when you look in through the window. You see broken "streets," fallen pots and so on.

Q. What's the Blue Project?

A. It's part of a new concept called "blue tourism," and was launched in December, with the opening of the our Reef Atlantis Tower. It gives guests the opportunity to give back to the ocean by participating in conservation programs and ocean-based experiences. Blue Project's first initiative is about conservation of coral reefs in the Bahamas and involves scientific and educational efforts. It is funded through Kerzner Marine Foundation, the Nature Conservancy and corporate sponsors.

Q. Has a particular reef been selected?

A. The first we're concentrating on is one we named Blue Gardens. We brought in a bunch of coral reef scientists. Blue Gardens is not far from Nassau, on the south side of Rose Island.

Q. Does anyone own it?

A. No. Anything that's below the high-tide water mark is government owned.

Q. Do you dive?

A. Yes. For Blue Project, I was involved in assessing which reefs we'd place our initial efforts on. I don't dive as much as I used to _ several times a year. When I started out here, I was diving every day.

Q. Do you have a favorite reef for diving?

A. Not really, but I prefer the eastern side of the island. There's a little more coral variety in the reefs. And you can dive or snorkel at quite a few of them without having to go out too far. Some are a mile or less from shore.

Q. Can a diver or snorkeler find animals like those exhibited at Atlantis?

A. Oh, yeah. About 97 percent of animals we exhibit come from local waters.

Q. Even those big ones?

A. Yes _ sharks and rays. That's what I used to do: help stock the exhibits.

Q. What's the most unusual specimen you personally brought in?

A. Nothing comes to mind. Most of what we exhibit can be found pretty easily, except for manta rays. I wasn't on one of those collecting trips, unfortunately.

Q. What does a 12-foot manta eat?

A. We feed them different kinds of small shrimp, called krill. The big manta eats about 24 pounds a day, 12 pounds in the morning, the rest at the afternoon feeding.

Zeus is huge. He's the fourth manta we've had in the exhibit, and we'll have to soon release him. All get released eventually.

We hire a helicopter to lift them out of their tanks and place them in the ocean. We thought the last one weighed 800 to 1,000 pounds. When the helicopter picked it up, the scale maxed out at 1,200 pounds and the helicopter barely had enough lift to get the manta back to the ocean. A manta can grow to be 24 feet across.

Q. So that released big guy is out there somewhere?

A. We put a tracking device on the last one. The last coordinates we got placed him just off the East Coast of the United States.


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