Thursday, March 8, 2012
The Monterey Bay Aquarium and its sister institution, Aquamarine Fukushima, both sit on the 37th parallel, at the smoldering edges of what geologists call the “Ring of Fire.” Active tectonic plates make both aquariums vulnerable to powerful earthquakes and tsunamis; they’re also both within an afternoon’s drive of a nuclear power plant.
But it was Aquamarine Fukushima that suffered the impacts of a triple disaster on March 11, 2011. The earthquake and tsunami stranded about 80 of Aquamarine’s workers and disabled its life-supporting electrical system, leaving it without power or running water.
Most staff evacuated the area as soon as they could. The skeleton crew that remained focused on transferring air-breathing animals to allied zoos and aquariums, working under the risk of nuclear fallout from the failing Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant about 40 miles away.
“These are folks who loved the collection, so I can’t imagine how they felt,” says Don Hughes, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s vice-president of exhibitions.
In a summer 2011 letter to Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard, Aquamarine Executive Director Yoshitaka Abe notes the geological similarities between the two aquariums, and thanks the MBA for its sisterly support throughout the disasters.
That relationship actually dates back several decades.
Randy Hamilton, the Aquarium’s vice president of husbandry, remembers meeting Abe in the late 1980s, when virtually no U.S. aquariums were displaying jellies. Abe supplied some of the Aquarium’s first polyps, and that single display tank has spawned one of MBA’s most popular draws: a permanent jelly wing, soon to be augmented by “The Jellies Experience,” a special exhibit opening March 31.
That intellectual trade goes two ways.
Chuck Farwell, manager of the Aquarium’s conservation research program, helped with a Pacific bluefin tuna exhibit when Abe was directing the Tokyo Sea Life Park, Monterey’s first sister aquarium in Japan, in the late 1980s.
Abe later went on to direct Japan’s Ueno Zoo, then oversaw the opening of Aquamarine Fukushima in 2000. Again, the Aquarium formed a sister relationship with its Japanese counterpart.Hamilton, who’s also made several trips to Aquamarine, says Aquarium staff helped “Abe-san” design a kids’ wing modeled after the Aquarium’s Splash Zone.
“Abe’s been the key person who has carried all this through,” Farwell says. “He’s one of the most innovative, creative aquarium directors I’ve ever met.”
Farwell was scheduled to visit Aquamarine in spring 2011, but a scheduling change forced him to cancel the trip. “Otherwise we would’ve been there during the earthquake,” he says. “We were pretty darn lucky.”
But the calamity didn’t keep Farwell away long. He returned to Aquamarine in April 2011, and again in May, June, July, September and December.
On that first post-tsunami trip, Farwell witnessed an aquarium in crisis. With no running water, the tanks were stagnant and choked with the carcasses of roughly 200,000 dead fish. By May, he says, Aquamarine staff had emptied most of the tanks and cleaned up the debris, and in June they were furiously working to re-stock their exhibits. Still, there weren’t too many visitors to Aquamarine on the tsunami-wrecked Onahama Port.
“It was pretty much psychologically off-limits,” Farwell says. “I felt it was important to go lend my moral support and say, ‘We’re here to help you.’” The Aquarium donated more than $25,000 to help offset Aqamarine’s losses.
Farwell remembers the sweat behind Aquamarine’s July 2011 re-opening. “Up until the moment they opened their doors to visitors, they were still adding fish and making repairs,” he says. “They were that close.”
Hughes has also been a regular visitor to Aquamarine, most recently last October, when Fukushima’s residents were beginning to settle back into daily life.
“Things just looked a little stressed,” he says. “There weren’t a lot of visitors. The industrious Japanese had swept all the stuff into football-field-sized piles, like 20 feet tall. The most compelling images are these huge piles, nicely sorted between tsunami debris and earthquake debris.”
Hughes is working to revive an exhibit of Fukushima’s catch flags. The bright designs stem from Abe’s idea to transform a Japanese fishing tradition into one that celebrates sustainable seas. The Aquarium displayed the flags in 2008, and Hughes hopes to hang them again this spring.