A River Runs Through It
L.L.Bean’s riverbed aquarium is a work of art and science.
- By: Kim Ridley
Photograph by Jason Crain
Inside: a river of fish, trophy-size salmon and trout. Outside: a river of humans of all shapes, ages, and sizes. Some people drift right by the riverbed aquarium at L.L.Bean, but many, especially those with small children, get caught in an eddy of curiosity.
It’s worth waiting until the kids clear out and abandoning your dignity to crouch down into the viewing dome on the left-hand side of the aquarium. Once you start watching the fish swimming around your head, you notice how surprisingly gorgeous they are. Rainbow trout flash iridescent silver with a pink flush running the length of their bodies. Brook trout have deep orange bellies and lower fins edged in white. Brown trout sport intricate patterns of ochre and black flecked with bright red-pink. Landlocked Atlantic salmon are pale gray and mottled with black.
About a million people a year visit this aquarium, which opened in 2007 and offers a fascinating glimpse of four of Maine’s most prized game fish. At twenty-four feet long, it is the largest aquarium-viewing window in the state. Two dozen or so fish live in this 3,500-gallon tank, along with crayfish hiding from them in the rocks. It is equally a work of art and a work of science.
On a quiet Sunday afternoon, Ed Seidel watches people watching the fish. A marine biologist who lives in Damariscotta, he’s one of the aquarium’s designers. After L.L.Bean’s visual merchandising team dreamed up the idea for an educational exhibit featuring fish, they contacted the New England Aquarium, which recommended Seidel and Tenji, Inc., the company he and two colleagues launched to design educational aquariums and marine and freshwater laboratories.
“It’s very satisfying to sit across from the tank and see people enjoying it,” says Seidel, who moved back to his home state in 2004 after a decade as a curator at the famed Monterey Bay Aquarium in California. Camera flashes bounce off the tank all around him. Doesn’t that bother the fish? Not at all, Seidel says. “But tapping on the tank really annoys them.” He explains how fish “hear” through a specialized organ called the lateral line that runs down either side of their bodies, allowing them to sense pressure changes in the water, stick together in schools, find food, and avoid predators and obstacles.
The two dozen or so salmon and trout all face in the same direction in the tank, toward a current created by two hundred gallons of water a minute pouring in over the observation dome. “Fish orientate themselves to face the current, which is called rheotaxis,” Seidel explains. “They’re dialing into the current, which tells them about their environment. It’s like our senses of smell and taste.”
It’s mesmerizing to watch the fish as they stream toward the current and swim to the bottom to rest among the rocks. The only other way you might get so up close and personal with these creatures is if you literally immersed yourself in some of Maine’s more remote fishing holes, braving icy water and treacherous currents, slippery rocks, and voracious blackflies. That’s pretty much what Seidel did to begin the design process.
Seidel trekked to Coos Canyon in Byron, Roaring Brook in Baxter State Park, and other spots to investigate the kinds of fishing holes Leon Leonwood Bean himself would have frequented a century ago when he wasn’t selling his newfangled hunting shoes from his brother’s basement in Freeport. Seidel donned a wetsuit and snorkel and waded into rapids with a waterproofed flip camera mounted on a pole to film everything from fish to rock formations.
“I saw a few fish, but the big ones were smart enough to swim away from the camera rig,” says Seidel. “Most of what I caught on film were small fish, crayfish, and some invertebrates. I was also very interested in capturing how rocks eroded in response to a river and trying to recreate that in the exhibit.”
Seidel hired his friend Jacques Vesery, a Maine-based artist and sculptor, to translate his photographs into the overall look and feel of the aquarium and concept sketches. A team of sculptors and artists used silicone molds of real Maine rocks to make convincing fiberglass fakes for the aquarium. They worked from latex molds to sculpt the tank’s lifelike sunken log from distressed PVC covered with epoxy and etched with L.L.Bean’s initials. “We couldn’t use a real log because it would rot and change the water chemistry,” Seidel says.
Creating the aquarium took about a year, with six months of design work and six months of construction. It took eight people four months just to build the tank, which is faced with two-inch-thick acrylic on the viewing side. What the public sees through the aquarium’s wall, however, is only a small piece of a complex system.
“We tried to make everything that’s artificial disappear,” Seidel says. Most of that is “backstage.” Seidel opens a door that leads to the aquarium’s life support system, a roomful of humming pumps and burbling stainless steel and fiberglass tanks connected by some mighty impressive plumbing.
The system’s “brain” is a computer that monitors everything from water temperature to oxygen levels and automatically corrects anything that is out of balance. The “heart” of the system is the pump and the “kidney” is a three-hundred-gallon tank that resembles a giant white ginger jar filled with plastic pellets. Natural bacteria from the air and fish colonize the pellets and break down ammonia and fish waste into nitrogen and other harmless gasses.
A dechlorinator removes chemicals from the water and a special chilling tank keeps the water at an optimum fifty-eight degrees. Above the tank, three halide lights provide “sunshine” eight to ten hours a day in keeping with the fishes’ natural daily rhythms.
Although the system is computer automated, it still requires human care. L.L.Bean maintenance staff feed the fish and are trained in how to maintain the exhibit and care for the fish, which are two to three years old and are raised and donated by Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife hatcheries in Dry Mills and Casco.
Before heading out, Seidel lifts a translucent fiberglass cover from the top of the tank for a look inside. Air wafts up, cool and sweet and smelling of brook.
Back on the public side of the tank, people continue to be swept up for a closer look at these otherworldly creatures. Some pause to read about the ecology of a riverbed and learn about the tank’s denizens from educational displays developed by Tenji, Inc., and the Gulf of Maine Research Institute.
“People are transfixed by the aquarium, especially the little ones who get to experience the viewing dome,” says Mac McKeever of L.L.Bean. “We want people to experience a snapshot of a Maine riverbed while they have fun, and learn something, too.”
Seidel, who was inspired in his career by childhood summers spent tide-pooling in Trenton with his grandmother, one of the first female marine biologists at Woods Hole, hopes people of all ages bring something away from this created stretch of river.
“I’d like people to walk away with a bit of child-like wonder, whether they’re children or adults,” he says. “Like Rachel Carson wrote, ‘If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child is a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life.’ ”
- By: Kim Ridley