By Ted Regencia
CHICAGO — After eight long years of planning, research and construction, the world’s largest aquarium located in Chicago solidified its status, as its unveils a new gigantic wing featuring the marine treasures of Apo Island in Negros Oriental, Philippines.
On April 15, Shedd Aquarium officially opened Wild Reef, a $47-million underwater habitat teeming with sharks, corals, eels, rays and even lobsters.
The permanent exhibit is a recreation of Apo Island’s coral reef ecosystem, dubbed by serious diving enthusiasts as one of the best diving spots in the world.
“Wild Reef is Chicago history in the making, and it’s one of the most exciting things to happen at Shedd,” Shedd President and CEO Ted Beattie declared.
Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley extolled the project as a “great example of cooperation” between the community and the Chicago business institutions supporting the project. He also hailed Shedd for its effort to raise awareness in protecting the environment.
Meanwhile, Philippine Consul General to Chicago Emelinda Lee Pineda dubbed the project as a “great pride” to the 180,000 Filipino Americans in Chicago, and the rest of the Filipino community in the US and the Philippines.
Sharks and corals
Playing the leading role in the exhibit are the 25 to 30 sharks. Visitors are ushered 20 feet underground to experience a diver’s eye-view of these predators – from Japanese wobbegongs to blacktip and whitetip reef sharks – showing off their style and stealth inside the 400,000 gallon tank.
“Sharks are the most efficient killers in the ocean,” explained Bert Vescolani, Shedd’s Vice President for aquarium collections and education. However, he noted, these predators are often misunderstood, thus leading to their unabated slaughter. With the new exhibit, Shedd hopes to educate visitors and highlight the need to protect the sharks, Vescolani stressed.
As visitors enjoy the spectacle, they will also hear the simulated sea waves crashing against the huge boulders re-created as close to the original in Apo Island.
Sharing the sharks’ billing are the corals. These corals are patterned after Apo’s rich and diverse marine environment. Much of the display, however, comes from Shedd’s own propagation program. With each passing year, these corals are expected to thrive in a “competitive reef ecosystem” much like that of the Apo marine sanctuary.
Conservation Beyond the spectacle and the entertainment value of the exhibit, Shedd hopes to bring about a positive change through education and conservation.
For instance, the exhibits call attention to the destructive fishing practices like blast fishing that kills corals and the wildlife that lives in them. Shedd officials stress that raising awareness about the need to conserve coral reefs and its entire ecosystem is a “critical mission” of the project.
Since the day Shedd Aquarium opened its doors 73 years ago, it has been educating its visitors about the environment, and the many ways to protect and conserve it. The Wild Reef exhibit amplifies this thrust. Through the exhibit, visitors will learn more about “the circle of life” and the crucial role of the community in protecting the environment.
Where it all started
It all started in the island of Apo, a 72-hectare volcanic rock located just south of Dumaguete, capital city of Negros Oriental in the Philippines.
Alarmed by the improper practices of fishermen there, scientists led by Standford University-educated biologist, Dr. Angel Alcala the community to adopt new fishing techniques. With the help of world-renowned marine biologists from Silliman Univesity, island residents who depend on the sea for livelihood started a coral reef conservation program in 1978.
The community initially resisted the idea. By working with the residents, however, Alcala eventually convinced them, and the community gradually embraced the concept as they continue to see improvements in their catch. Eventually, they organized themselves to police the marine sanctuary and protect the area from outsiders.
Today, the island is already a protected sanctuary. Its success did not go unnoticed. Professional and amateur divers from around the word raved about Apo Reef, saying it easily rivals Tubbataha Reef in Palawan, and the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.
For his role in the sustainable development of Apo and other outstanding environment achievements, Dr. Alcala was awarded the 1992 Ramon Magsaysay Award and Chicago Field Museum’s 1994 Founders’ Council Award. In December 1997, Apo was aptly rewarded when the Philippine Council for Aquatic and Marine Research cited the community as the “Best Managed Reef.”
More than the material reward, residents are basking with pride for their efforts even as they are living a simple and unsophisticated lifestyle. They are also enjoying abundant and steady harvest.
It was in the 1990s when experts from Shedd Aquarium took notice of the highly successful project. Bert Vescolani explained that throughout their study in the Philippines, Apo stood out. Vescolani, and a colleague Bryan Schuetze, traveled to the island and both attested to the islanders’ warm hospitality and the magnificence of its marine sanctuary.
Following intense discussion with Silliman University scientists, and the community, Shedd experts recommended Apo as a model of its Wild Reef project. And the rest is history.