NEW ORLEANS — The Aquarium of the Americas is delving into the past for its first major improvement since Hurricane Katrina, transforming its Caribbean reef tunnel into a mock-up of an ancient Mayan city.
The $1.5 million project is scheduled to open in January, and will also include a wall of fish where a video board now hangs in the lobby. The tank will be 20 feet long and 8 feet tall, and filled with more than 5,000 silvery fish native to the Mayan reef off the coast of Mexico.
The fish are a herring-like species called false pilchard.
“When they school together, it’s like a moving disco ball,” said aquarium curator James Arnold. “The fish swim against the flow in nature. In this case, they will swim in the same direction that visitors walk.”
The “Great Mayan Reef” exhibit will use recreations of ruins artifacts as a backdrop for marine life, as well as interactive technology and new displays. Aquarium officials said it was inspired by the discovery of ancient Mayan ruins submerged beneath Lake Atitlan in Guatemala and the Tulum ruin site off the Mexican coast.
With aquarium attendance rising steadily since Katrina, officials say they want to keep the momentum going by offering visitors something fresh.
“I wanted something new that provided a way to say we need to be better environmental citizens and still do it in a fun way,” Audubon Institute CEO Ron Forman said. “This reef is a unique biosystem, but it’s also very fragile. And it needs to be protected.”
From inside the tunnel, Mayan columns and replicas of massive stone pieces in the shape of heads, pottery and “stelae,” tall sculpted stone shafts that served as altars, will dot the landscape.