'Wild Reef' presents the environment of Apo Island in the Philippines.
CHICAGO (AP) -- You start your trip on the shore of Lake Michigan, inside a white marble hall decorated with whimsical figures of sea creatures.
An eight-second elevator ride later, you're standing on the brown, sandy shores of Apo Island in the Philippines.
Not really, of course. But the John G. Shedd Aquarium's new exhibit captures the sounds, sights and spirit of Apo Island -- from waves crashing against a rocky shore to hundreds of schooling fish and more than 25 sharks.
"They were able to re-create a complete paradise," said Willi Red Buhay, one of several Filipino-Americans consulted on the project.
"Wild Reef," the first major new permanent exhibit in 12 years at the world's largest indoor aquarium, opened April 15. Tickets start at $17 for adults, although Chicagoans get a discount.
The trip to paradise begins as visitors first hear -- then see -- crashing waves in the exhibit's first room, the sunny beach of Apo Island.
Underwater atmosphere
Inside the next room, dimmed lights and a sea-themed Italian mosaic tile floor help visually transport visitors underwater on a mock scuba dive. A green-and-white, cartoonishly large artificial coral polyp gives way to the largest display of live coral in the Midwest.
Underwater sounds are piped in overhead.
"We wanted to hit every sense possible," explained Shedd planning and design director Bryan Schuetze.
Diving deeper, the visitor sees more than 150 species of fish in colors as bland as sand and as fantastic as fluorescent yellow. Across the way lurk midsize predators, including parrotfish and triggerfish.
Visitors dive next to the edge of the reef and the exhibit's centerpiece: a 400,000-gallon tank featuring at least 25 sharks, including the blacktip, wobbegong and sand bar varieties.
Dozens of other animals share the space, including Baby Huey, a Napoleon wrasse -- a big, blue-blooded fish with prominent scales and lips -- who could grow to 300 pounds. (The Shedd staff feeds the sharks well and removes ill animals from the habitat, so you won't be seeing "When Sharks Attack.")
The shark tank room is taller than the others and dark blue, reinforcing the feeling of being deeper under water. The piped-in sounds change, too, from the whoosh of waves and chirp of animals to a steady, deep thrumming.
Across from the shark habitat, blue-spot stingrays dart around a display set into the floor. To see the rays you stand directly over them on 3 inches of acrylic and 3/4 inch of glass.
Sharks swimming across the horizon. Stingrays floating underfoot. This room provides the most "oohs" and "aahs."
"This is the granddaddy of the exhibit," confirmed Bert Vescolani, the Shedd vice president who oversees aquarium collections.
Near the shark tank, a touch-screen computer display encourages visitors to "build" a shark, selecting from a choice of bodies, tails, eyes and teeth. The computer then finds a shark that meets the specs and tells the player a bit about it. If the selections are poorly matched, the animal "blows up" on screen, the parts sinking as a display shows why they won't go together.
The shark-building exercise embodies how Shedd chose to embed the exhibit's educational elements rather than confront the visitor with them.
"It's stealth education," Vescolani said.
Throughout the exhibit, displays provide information on the exhibit's animals and, in some cases, on their significance to Philippine culture.
Life on land
Beyond displays of eels, frogfish and other animals, the underwater adventure ends and the visitor is returned to shore to learn the importance of mangrove forests and lagoon habitats and to get a primer on Apo Island life.
"I believe that the Shedd Aquarium really went out of their way to know not only the animals but the inhabitants of Apo Island," said Buhay, one of the project consultants, who was born in Manila and has visited Apo Island.
Ultimately, the message of the $47 million "Wild Reef," as it is with all Shedd exhibits, is about conservation.
Shedd chose Apo Island because it is a real-life example of how humans can live in harmony with nature to the betterment of both.
For years, Apo Island residents fished using methods that destroyed the reef -- such as poisoning animals with cyanide or detonating explosives to drive stunned fish to the surface for easy picking.
But faced with the death of their fishing grounds, Apo Islanders agreed to ban fishing on a quarter of the reef and practice less-destructive methods on the remainder. The reef ecosystem rebounded, fishing improved and the island became a destination for ecotourism.
Growing coral
The exhibit's final display shows some of the water tanks, filtration systems and other gear used to grow coral. It drives home the conservation message and returns the visitor from Apo Island to the Shedd.
It's also a reminder of what the hyper-realism of Wild Reef might make a person forget.
"People don't know how difficult it is to reproduce what Mother Nature does naturally," Schuetze said.
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