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Swimming With Sharks

Stocking the Aquarium of the Americas

Mayor Sidney Barthelemy and the Audubon Institute Director had a long-standing bet about the aquarium opening as scheduled. It opened on time, and Barthelemy lost the bet. So, the Mayor suited up in an old-timey swimming costume, jumped in the big tank and swam with the sharks. Even though a musician was on hand playing taps, Barthelemy wasn’t worried. The sharks were well fed, and, as he quipped “Some say sharks would never bother a politician, because they extend professional courtesy.”

Image provided courtesy of the Louisiana Division of the New Orleans Public Library

Talk of a largescale, riverfront aquarium in New Orleans started in the early 1980s, but it wasn’t until a millage vote passed in 1986 that plans started taking shape. The millage taxes, combined with private and corporate donations, helped fund the $30+ million Aquarium of the Americas built at the edge of the French Quarter.

While the aquarium wouldn’t be ready to open until 1990, collecting marine life to stock the tanks began about a year before that.

In the spring of 1989, the aquarium started their acquisitions by catching nurse and lemon sharks from Florida waters. Shark gathering also took place in Delaware (tiger sharks) and Texas (baby hammerheads and bonnet head sharks). The sharks were stored in a warehouse along the river, where they were patiently (and carefully) taught how to be handfed while waiting for the aquarium build to finish.

Still more sea creatures were bought from fisherman and marine dealers, and others were attained by trading with other aquariums. About 20 percent of the specimens were donated to the aquarium by private individuals and other donors.

A special Piranha Bill was passed by the Louisiana Senate in July of 1990 to allow the aquarium to import and house piranhas in the Amazon Rain Forest Habitat, superseding a 1950 law banning their importation. A scientific study was needed to prove the fish couldn’t escape and infest the Mississippi River before the bill could pass. (A quote from one representative claimed the chemicals in the river would eat your hand before the piranhas could.)

When the aquarium opened on September 1, 1990, it held more than 10,000 fish and other marine life, representing about 400 species. By mid-afternoon, 10,692 visitors came through the front door, giving the Aquarium of the Americas the record for opening-day attendance of any aquarium preceding it.
 

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