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During the long winter and through the springtime odd things have been happening at Coney Island—strange goings on even for a place that deals in the weird and the bizarre. Lights have burned all night at a rambling, fortresslike building hard by the boardwalk. Men have been seen running through the gloom with sharks in their arms. Walruses on the loose have roamed the seaside resort. Trucks have unloaded electric eels, hawksbill turtles, slangdangs and even the gloomy octopus. At the same time the place has been pervaded by a steady hum of machinery.
All this unorthodox activity will be explained on June 5 when, amid high ceremony, leaders in the realms of zoology, finance and politics will gather there for the opening of the New York Aquarium, 10 years in the planning and building. Crabs, sea horses and many-hued fishes will be given a hearty welcome, because America's largest city has been without an official aquarium for 16 years. Annie, the misnamed penguin (he is actually a male), the only known survivor of the old New York Aquarium, which was sunk by the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel in 1941, will be on hand to cut a tape across the front door. Annie will be persuaded to perform this ceremonial act by having a smelt tied on the tape—smelt is his favorite food. The next day, June 6, the new institution will open its doors to the public to observe, study and laugh at the antics of the curious denizens of the salt and fresh water of the world.
All those sea critters, from man-eating sharks to shy anemones, that delighted millions in the old Aquarium, at the Battery, will be back in business in a modern fish repository. This is the first phase, called Stage One, of a mammoth home for things of the sea, which ultimately will cost more than $10 million. Among all the dignitaries on hand for the opening ceremony none will be more concerned over the success of the new Aquarium than C. W. Coates, its director, a rangy 6-footer with one of the highest foreheads in New York.
Behind that forehead there have throbbed the thousand headaches attendant upon launching such a complicated enterprise. Through the winter and spring Coates, normally a restless man, has been the most frantic fisherman in the U.S., its territories and adjacent waters. Catching fish, a solemn concern to the nation's anglers, was one of his lesser problems. It was the transporting and keeping them alive after they were caught that brought those wrinkles to Coates's towering brow.
At the opening ceremonies will be Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who insisted that the city's new Aquarium be located at Coney Island, the first step in the rehabilitation of that raucous landmark. As Moses put it, "the ichthyologist elbows out the freak, the barker and the shill." Also on hand will be Laurance S. Rockefeller, who put up a lot of the money; Fairfield Osborn, president of the New York Zoological Society, which operates both the Aquarium and the Bronx Zoo; and Mayor Robert Wagner, who will welcome the fish back to the big town.
But none there will harbor such deep anxiety as Coates. It is his job to be off and running at Coney Island on June 6, with the tanks full of strange and healthy creatures of the deep.
This was a monumental task. Fish are great travelers in their natural surroundings but, when subjected to man's transportation, they become seasick, airsick or carsick. Unsuitable temperatures make them go into a tail spin. Improper salinity makes them mope. On one occasion a truckload of fish was held up for 20 minutes in one of the tunnels under the Hudson River. It didn't affect motorists, but the 20 minutes of pumping the fume-laden air into the tanks killed every one of the fish.
MOBILE FISH HOME
To ward off all these troubles of fish travel, Coates spent $9,000 on a truck equipped with generators, water heaters, air pumps, oxygen tanks, air tanks and a mass of other gadgets, including a device like an egg crate to keep the water from splashing. It is the fanciest mobile fish home ever constructed.
On its trial run the fish Pullman went down to the Florida Keys in command of Aage Svend Olsen, a huge Dane wise in the ways of fish. Olsen used to work with Coates at the old Aquarium and was there on the sad day when that venerable institution closed. Fish are not calculated to evoke deep human sentiment, but it was a glum crew who sailed offshore and dumped their prize specimens back into the depths from which they came.