April 20, 2014

Going with the flow: Water trickles into new Florida Keys aquarium

Watching water trickle slowly into an empty 200,000-gallon fish tank isn't that far off from watching grass grow or paint dry.

Watching water trickle slowly into an empty 200,000-gallon fish tank isn't that far off from watching grass grow or paint dry.

But to Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters co-owner Ben Daughtry, nothing could be more important. It was a huge step toward realizing his longtime dream of opening the Marathon attraction.

"It's a pretty big moment for us here, so we'll see how it goes," he said as the water flowed from an injection well.

The cavernous 10-foot-tall tank (actually two connected tanks) took roughly six months to construct, and Daughtry, along with "life system" designer Andy Dobrowolski, spent last week testing the intricate setup.

It features a dozen sand filters, three protein skimmers, an ozone chamber, 25 pumps and three air blowers, as well as myriad PVC piping running to the tank and other areas of the nine-acre property.

"We'll fill this up and run all the filtration equipment Andy put together for a couple days to make sure everything is how we want it. Then we'll drain the whole thing out and start theming the inside to make it look like coral reef," Daughtry said.

The tank is separated in the middle by a thick, clear divider with four small holes in it. Sharks and other "more aggressive" species will be kept on one side, while the other one will be used to allow up to six people at a time to snorkel or Snuba in.

Guests will be able to feed the sharks through the small holes in the divider.

The rest of the facility includes a large stingray tank, another small nurse shark tank, a touch tank, a concession stand, gift shop and offices.

The Marathon City Council initially approved the project, at 117th Street and U.S. 1, roughly nine years ago. But the economy tanked, preventing financing. It sat dormant until June 2013, when funding was secured and ground was broken.

Large tiki huts covering the various attractions were first to be constructed and began drawing lots of interest from locals.

Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters is planning to open to the public on July 1 and Daughtry said animals are already being collected and quarantined at Dynasty Marine Associates in Marathon.

Daughtry is part-owner of both businesses, along with Dynasty founder Forrest Young. Dynasty collects and sells fish to private and commercial aquarium owners around the world.

Daughtry said he plans to hire roughly 15 full-time employees and several part-time workers for Aquarium Encounters. There will be full-time instructors for the interaction portion of it

"We'll probably take some of our marine biologists from Dynasty and cross-train them," he said. "We're hiring another marine biologist so we have an extra set of hands and can give them different things to do so it varies up their day and week a little bit."

The Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters name was suggested by Marathon residents Jason and Sandy Robinson, who were the winners of a naming contest.

There were roughly 75 entries in the contest. The Robinsons were awarded free admission to the aquarium for themselves and their two daughters for one year.

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