It’s not the cost of an electric eel that’s the problem. It’s the transportation.
Come to think of, you could say the same thing about some of the new tank decorations at the Belle Isle Aquarium. But those arrived in the back of an 18-foot box truck.
The electric eels had to fly.
There are two of them, each about 2 feet long. Our apologies for spoiling the surprise, but they’ll make their Detroit debut Saturday, the latest lap in the aquarium’s marathon swim back from near-abandonment.
The truckload of decorations — “tankscaping,” as it’s called in the aquarium world — won’t be displayed for awhile yet. But as an indication of progress, it’s as illuminating as the eels.
The National Aquarium in Washington, D.C., closed in late September. A swarm of volunteers from Belle Isle, having wisely befriended staffers there beforehand, were able to salvage everything from rocks to rubberized faux coral to the 7-foot-long fiberglass fuselage of an imitation World War II bomber.
The state parks department officially arrives Feb. 10 to refurbish and run Belle Isle. Unfortunately, it’s not Neptune, able to wave a magic trident and make budgets disappear.
The aquarium’s boosters, like their neighboring seagulls and carp, still need to scavenge — and they’ve had a very good winter.
Water welcome to Detroit
The aquarium held a fundraiser in December with the specific goal of getting back in the electric eel business.
Along with most of the other previous occupants, the old eels left town after the city’s financial problems closed the facility in 2005. A tenacious corps of aquarium lovers refused to let the building crumble, and it reopened in 2012, greeting visitors from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. every Saturday.
Reacquiring an electric eel became a priority, partly for the symbolic value and partly because they’re as cool and mysterious as they are creepy looking. Operations manager Richiard Kik IV bought two; small ones are only $180 to $200, and who was he to pass up a bargain?
They came from Peru and arrived at considerable expense inside separate plastic bags in crates. Their genders are uncertain, as are details of precisely how adult electric eels produce baby electric eels. As far as Kik knows, they’ve never been willing to demonstrate in captivity.
Since they might live 30 to 40 years and grow to 6 feet in length, each electric eel typically rates its own tank.
“From my perspective,” Kik says, “it’s very interesting to see how two of them interact.”
The public can observe for itself during Saturday’s annual Shiver on the River family fair, beginning at 10 a.m. in half a dozen of the island’s historic structures.
Scavenging in D.C.
The eels had a speedier journey than the seven volunteers who went to Washington.
They drove down in two vehicles on a Sunday, picked up a donated Penske truck, loaded it Monday and drove back Tuesday. No frills, no sightseeing, plenty of heavy lifting.
Vance Patrick, one of the core band of Belle Isle Aquarium fans who refused to abandon ship, heard last summer that the National Aquarium was foundering.
He and some some friends drove down for a farewell look, brought bagels and donuts for the staff, and managed to wrangle an invitation to come plunder the exhibits once the fish had been relocated to the larger, spiffier National Aquarium in Baltimore.
Among the treasures they dragged back was the fiberglass hull of a Great Lakes freighter — one piece 300 pounds, the other a mere 250.
Ultimately, it’ll wind up in an exhibit with occupants who won’t appreciate the effort. But that’s OK.
They’re just fish, after all, and some of them might be jet-lagged.