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New Orleans Aquarium Has New Lease on Life


In New Orleans today, the return of aquatic wonder.

(Soundbite of children)

BLOCK: The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas used to be one of New Orleans's top attractions, and today, it reopened for the first time since Hurricane Katrina hit last August. Katrina knocked out power and clean water sources at the aquarium. Thousands of animals were lost and many jobs, too. Only a quarter of its employees are back.

For those who are back, today's opening was a joyous moment. Earlier today, I reached Lance Ripley at the aquarium, where he's the assistant curator of fish.

Mr. LANCE RIPLEY (Audubon Aquarium of the Americas): I'm in our Living in Water gallery right now. I'm standing behind our tropical shark exhibit. Behind me is our colors exhibit. It's an indoor Pacific reef exhibit where we show off some of the more colorful fis,: yellow tangs and fox-face and some really brightly colored damselfish.

BLOCK: And what are they doing right now?

Mr. RIPLEY: Ah, chasing each other around, just like they always do.

BLOCK: And these are all fish that, obviously, you had to replace, because this was a total loss of the fish population, I think.

Mr. RIPLEY: Well, some of them we did and others - actually, the exhibit that I'm looking at now, we were renovating it right before the storm hit, so those fish were in holding over at our off-site facility, which fared much better than the main building itself. So, there were some Katrina survivors, not only some of the fish in our larger exhibits, but some smaller ones as well.

BLOCK: Well, who else is back, Lance?

Mr. RIPLEY: Some of the animals that never left were our white alligator. It stayed here. It was quite happy that - when we first came back, the building itself was warmer than 90, 95 degrees and his water was pretty dirty, which is where they come from, so that one was pretty happy.

We just recently welcomed back our penguins, our African penguins and our sea otters. They were being held for us at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. That was good to see.

BLOCK: Lance, describe for us what you saw right after Katrina when you came back to the aquarium. What kind of condition was it in?

Mr. RIPLEY: The building itself was in good condition. We didn't get any floodwater around here. There were a good number of windows that were broken. Once you got inside, that was where you kind of got kicked in the gut. The smell was not something that I will ever forget. A good number of the exhibits, you couldn't see in. They were fairly disgusting.

As the temperature went up in the building and the animals ran out of air, their carcasses would decay and just got pretty nasty. And then it took us, you know, a week, week and a half to finally clean some of that stuff out of there. So, it was really unpleasant, but it wasn't something that we could shy away from. It was a task, it needed to be done. If we were going to rebuild this place, we had to get everything cleaned up and sterilized and that's what we did.

BLOCK: The fish that are there now, I understand you've gotten a lot of donations from other aquariums around the country.

Mr. RIPLEY: We have. We have been very well taken care by the public aquarium and zoo community. It was very reassuring, through some really uncertain times, knowing that that help was out there.

BLOCK: Are there some fish or animals there that you just can't replace, that are just gone and irreplaceable?

Mr. RIPLEY: We had a 13-foot smalltooth sawfish that was in our largest exhibit, our Gulf of Mexico exhibit. They're an endangered species and, yeah, an animal of that size that had been in captivity for that long, it can't be replaced. But, we've moved on, you know, we have other animals that have kind of taken the place of that one. We used to only have three southern stingrays, now, we have 15.

BLOCK: So the stingray population is multiplying?

Mr. RIPLEY: Oh, yeah. Sea World of Orlando had 15 southern stingrays. They jumped at the chance to make sure that we got them. We have a transport trailer, which is really like an aquarium on wheels that's gone almost all over the country picking up extra animals. And, you know, it took two trips, but we brought them all back and they look great.

BLOCK: Well, Lance Ripley, congratulations on the reopening today. Best of luck.

Mr. RIPLEY: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

BLOCK: Lance Ripley is Assistant Curator of Fish at the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, which reopened in New Orleans today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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