During the long winter and through the springtime odd things have been happening at Coney Island—strange goings on even for a place that deals in the weird and the bizarre. Lights have burned all night at a rambling, fortresslike building hard by the boardwalk. Men have been seen running through the gloom with sharks in their arms. Walruses on the loose have roamed the seaside resort. Trucks have unloaded electric eels, hawksbill turtles, slangdangs and even the gloomy octopus. At the same time the place has been pervaded by a steady hum of machinery.
This is an article from the May 20, 1957 issue
All this unorthodox activity will be explained on June 5 when, amid high ceremony, leaders in the realms of zoology, finance and politics will gather there for the opening of the New York Aquarium, 10 years in the planning and building. Crabs, sea horses and many-hued fishes will be given a hearty welcome, because America's largest city has been without an official aquarium for 16 years. Annie, the misnamed penguin (he is actually a male), the only known survivor of the old New York Aquarium, which was sunk by the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel in 1941, will be on hand to cut a tape across the front door. Annie will be persuaded to perform this ceremonial act by having a smelt tied on the tape—smelt is his favorite food. The next day, June 6, the new institution will open its doors to the public to observe, study and laugh at the antics of the curious denizens of the salt and fresh water of the world.
All those sea critters, from man-eating sharks to shy anemones, that delighted millions in the old Aquarium, at the Battery, will be back in business in a modern fish repository. This is the first phase, called Stage One, of a mammoth home for things of the sea, which ultimately will cost more than $10 million. Among all the dignitaries on hand for the opening ceremony none will be more concerned over the success of the new Aquarium than C. W. Coates, its director, a rangy 6-footer with one of the highest foreheads in New York.
Behind that forehead there have throbbed the thousand headaches attendant upon launching such a complicated enterprise. Through the winter and spring Coates, normally a restless man, has been the most frantic fisherman in the U.S., its territories and adjacent waters. Catching fish, a solemn concern to the nation's anglers, was one of his lesser problems. It was the transporting and keeping them alive after they were caught that brought those wrinkles to Coates's towering brow.
At the opening ceremonies will be Parks Commissioner Robert Moses, who insisted that the city's new Aquarium be located at Coney Island, the first step in the rehabilitation of that raucous landmark. As Moses put it, "the ichthyologist elbows out the freak, the barker and the shill." Also on hand will be Laurance S. Rockefeller, who put up a lot of the money; Fairfield Osborn, president of the New York Zoological Society, which operates both the Aquarium and the Bronx Zoo; and Mayor Robert Wagner, who will welcome the fish back to the big town.
But none there will harbor such deep anxiety as Coates. It is his job to be off and running at Coney Island on June 6, with the tanks full of strange and healthy creatures of the deep.
This was a monumental task. Fish are great travelers in their natural surroundings but, when subjected to man's transportation, they become seasick, airsick or carsick. Unsuitable temperatures make them go into a tail spin. Improper salinity makes them mope. On one occasion a truckload of fish was held up for 20 minutes in one of the tunnels under the Hudson River. It didn't affect motorists, but the 20 minutes of pumping the fume-laden air into the tanks killed every one of the fish.
MOBILE FISH HOME
To ward off all these troubles of fish travel, Coates spent $9,000 on a truck equipped with generators, water heaters, air pumps, oxygen tanks, air tanks and a mass of other gadgets, including a device like an egg crate to keep the water from splashing. It is the fanciest mobile fish home ever constructed.
On its trial run the fish Pullman went down to the Florida Keys in command of Aage Svend Olsen, a huge Dane wise in the ways of fish. Olsen used to work with Coates at the old Aquarium and was there on the sad day when that venerable institution closed. Fish are not calculated to evoke deep human sentiment, but it was a glum crew who sailed offshore and dumped their prize specimens back into the depths from which they came.
In Florida, Olsen assembled his fish for this first crucial trip, using tiny hooks for the smaller varieties so as not to injure them. Loading them into the truck tanks he rode them up and down the highway for a couple of hours while they endured their car sickness. Then the water was changed, and the truck sped north with pumps and generators going like crazy. They made it from Islamorada to Coney Island in 46 hours, the crew taking turns driving. Olsen got two hours sleep during the trip. At the Aquarium an anxious Coates received bulletins of their northward progress.
It was a bitter, windy day when the fish van rolled into the Aquarium with its travel-weary cargo and its haggard crew. Despite their fatigue there was no time to waste in unloading their precious specimens. Men ran out with tubs of water to mix with that in the tanks, so there would be no abrupt change. Then they began transferring the catch in mad haste. Coates was all over the place, helping the men and giving instructions.
Two men rushed up with a tub. Coates looked in and said, "Wow! Look at that beautiful hogfish. Put him in here." Next a tubful of assorted spiny lobsters, conchs and crabs was eased into a receiving tank. Coates ran out and came tearing back with a 3-foot shark clasped in his arms. A man ran by, holding aloft a baby hawksbill turtle wearing a turtle-neck sweater fashioned out of burlap.
"This is Smokey," shouted the man as he ran. Smokey was divested of his sweater and placed in a tank of warm water of the type to which he was accustomed.
"A nice batfish," Coates was saying at another tank. A man ran by with a slangdang in a dip net.
"A slangdang would jump out of a tub," Coates explained. The mad parade continued with spiny boxfish, moray eels, groupers, angelfish, hermit crabs and a host of other tropical oddities passing in review on their way to the holding tanks. When it was all over, the men stood by with bleary eyes and unshaven faces. It turned out that they had lost only two fish out of more than 200.
"This is the first time that marine fish have ever been shipped so far in a truck," Coates told them. "And, don't forget, this is the dead of winter."
The fish Pullman was a success. The crew went home to sleep, but Olsen, a man of iron, stuck around to make sure the fish started eating all right. Coates kept moving from tank to tank peering down at the prizes.
"It does your heart good," he said. "We're back in business again."
This was the first of many trips for the truck—down to Miami to pick up a collection brought over from Bimini, in the Bahamas, to Baltimore to pick up a shipment from Bermuda and more journeys to the Florida Keys. Meanwhile, more fish ordered from commercial dealers were coming in by air, transported in polyethylene bags. One container for small leopard sharks from the Pacific was designed so they could swim in circles while aboard the plane. If these sharks can't keep swimming they pass out. Other fish, like groupers, prefer to lounge while traveling.
Each new shipment presented its problems, but there were other things which brought headaches to Coates. Carpenters and mechanics were hammering away on the finishing touches inside the building. New pumps, heaters and complicated machines were being broken in. And he had plenty of trouble with a pair of baby walruses which were having a hard time becoming accustomed to Coney Island.
Although babies, the walruses, Olaf and Karen, were each the size of a cow. Coates put them in an outdoor pool with an iron fence around it. The walruses pushed the fence over and went for a Coney Island stroll. Miss Clara Hankins, an artist painting interiors for the fish tanks, was at work one day when she turned to see a walrus coming toward her through the swinging door. Her screams brought carpenters on the run. They hustled Olaf out the door, and the walrus led the carpenters on a brisk walk just back of the briny beach. Shades of Alice in Wonderland!
The walrus and the carpenters were still on the move when Coates came running and they finally corralled them in their pool. Then they enclosed the pool with an electric fence of the type used by farmers to confine cattle. When the walruses touched their tender snouts to the wire, they jumped back at the mild shock. Coates thought he had won but, as soon as his back was turned, the walruses put the tough hide of their rumps against the wire, broke it and went for another stroll. This time they climbed a long flight of steps, mounted a four-foot parapet and were found basking in the sun on the Aquarium roof. It was the first instance of rooftop sunbathing by walruses in the history of New York.
DIET FOR WALRUSES
After that escapade they put them in an escapeproof tank until better quarters could be arranged. Karen, the female, quit eating on a Friday and died the next Monday. An autopsy disclosed nothing that might have caused death. Coates figured they might have started eating fish too soon and put Olaf back on a milk diet. He turned out to be an appealing clown, following keepers around and balancing his food pan on his head. At last report he was doing fine on a daily diet of two-and-a-half gallons of evaporated milk, 11 dozen clams, 30 pounds of herring, vitamins and prodigious quantities of cod-liver oil.
The Aquarium hopes to have several more baby walruses on hand in time for opening day. They also have been having a time with their elephant seals, which currently are parked out in California. They are the proud owners of three elephant seals, giants of the seal family, with rubbery noses and weighing up to 4,000 pounds. They had hoped to get one of the big ones here in time for the opening, but the big pool will not be completed in time so they plan to fly their smallest elephant seal, a 450-pounder, here to help start the show. Eventually they plan to have the big ones charging up and down a 90-foot pool.
Electric eels, fascinating animals capable of turning loose up to 650 volts of electricity, will be one of the prime exhibits. At the old Aquarium, Coates became the first man to light bulbs with electric eel power. He even went further than that, getting his eels to run an electric motor and make weird sounds over a loudspeaker.
At the New York World's Fair in 1939 one of Coates's eels, a shocker named Electra, attained fame by transmitting a telegram to Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt. The eel's message to the First Lady said: AS THIS IS THE VERY FIRST TELEGRAM I HAVE EVER TRANSMITTED IN ALL MY AQUATIC LIFE AND PROBABLY THE FIRST ONE ACTUALLY WRITTEN BY A FISH YOU HAVE EVER RECEIVED, I GREET YOU AS ONE OF THE MOST ILLUSTRIOUS PATRONS AND A LOYAL MEMBER OF THE NEW YORK ZOOLOGICAL SOCIETY. (SIGNED) ELECTRA, ELECTRIC EEL OF THE NEW YORK AQUARIUM.
This was a fitting gesture, for Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the electromagnetic telegraph, gave his first demonstration in the old Aquarium building in 1835.
But electric eels produce headaches, too. On several occasions Coates was sent flying through the air by a charge from an uneasy eel. And one day Thomas Callahan, one of the keepers, was filling an eel tank with a hose, holding his thumb in the stream to make sure the temperature remained constant. He talked to a visiting friend as the water ran into the tank. A big eel swam beneath the stream and suddenly let go heavy voltage.
The charge traveled up the stream to Callahan's hand. His arm jerked to a vertical position, and he remained frozen with the hose held aloft. There he stood like a piece of fountain statuary, his face contorted and the water from the hose cascading over his body. His friend, thinking Callahan had suddenly become demented, fled the building. Coates, more eel-wise, turned off the water and helped restore Callahan to normal.
While making new eels comfortable, Coates had to get back into the fish-trading business with foreign institutions. Aquariums are great on seahorse trading, crab swapping and making all sorts of fishy deals. When Prince Rainier of Monaco was over here, Coates had lunch with him and cooked up some fish trades. During the luncheon Prince Rainier said that what he wanted most were horseshoe crabs.
HELP FOR MONACO
On this side of the Atlantic, horseshoe crabs are as common as pig tracks in Arkansas, but they are not found on the other shore of the ocean. In 1920 Prince Albert of Monaco, Rainier's great-grandfather, came to New York in his yacht, and the things he wanted most for the Monaco aquarium were horseshoe crabs. The old Prince sailed away with all the bathtubs on his yacht full of these antediluvian monsters.
"History repeats itself," Coates said. He sent Rainier some crabs, and the Prince agreed to send him some Mediterranean fish in exchange. At the last report Coates hadn't received the shipment from the Prince.
"I guess he's been pretty busy lately," Coates said.
Transporting the fish is half the battle. The other half is keeping them alive and healthy in the display tanks. Behind the scenes at the Aquarium is a complex of pumps, heaters, air conveyers and machines too numerous to list. When the institution is completed, it will have 56 different water systems providing conditions suitable to fishes from all parts of the world.
Reaching out under the beach at Coney Island is an intake system with 120 well points 10 feet below the sand at tidewater. Sea water is sucked in through the well points and into the Aquarium through a 12-inch main. Once inside it goes through elaborate filtering and heating systems to make it homelike for the different species.
Even with the proper water, fish have their troubles. All fish harbor parasites to some degree. When large numbers are confined in tanks, they keep exchanging parasites until the parasites do away with the fish. Coates and Dr. Ross Nigrelli, the Aquarium's parasitologist, had to work out methods of getting rid of the parasites before they could hope to keep specimens for any length of time.
In the old Aquarium they evolved a method of immersing the fish in ordinary, dirty bay water pumped from the harbor. They would leave the fish in this polluted water just long enough to kill the parasites but not long enough to kill the fish. At Coney Island they have to do it with chemically treated water.
All these tricks of this unique trade come naturally to Coates as a result of his long experience in charge of the tropical fish department at the old Aquarium. During the years when the city was without an official aquarium he maintained a token exhibit of freshwater fishes along one wall of the Lion House at the Bronx Zoo.
MIKE THE SHRIKE
Coates has an uncanny knack with all animals. He even tamed a bat one time and carried it around in his briefcase until he began to lose friends who looked askance at his eerie pet. He used to keep penguins happy by wrapping them up in towels and shining ultraviolet rays on their feet. Once he trained a northern shrike for indoor falconry. He taught the small bird, which he called Captain Blood, alias Mike the Shrike, to fly from the wrist after cockroaches.
Coates was proud of his achievement, although the sport didn't catch on. Animal importers having difficulties with rare specimens used to bring them to Coates at the old Aquarium to get them back in shape. At one time he was nurturing a barrel of monkeys—nine species, which is just about a barrelful.
The old Aquarium at the foot of Manhattan was a wonderful place. It was never intended to be an aquarium; its aged pipes were leaky and it presented plenty of troubles for its operators. But the antiquity of the place, its history and its massive construction gave it a quaint atmosphere. It had been built on a small island between 1807 and 1811 as a fort to protect the growing city. Then the channel separating it from Manhattan filled in until the island became a part of Battery Park. During its curious evolution it had been a public assembly hall, an opera house where Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale, made her American debut, an immigration station through which most of the Irish came into this country and in 1896 a place in which to house fishes.
THE BAD OLD DAYS
At that time it was an eerie establishment where visitors peered into gaslit tanks at fishes swimming in impure water pumped from the harbor. It has been a long evolution from the gaslight era of fish husbandry to the complicated mass of machinery which runs the new institution at Coney Island.
Visitors will enter the new Aquarium directly from the boardwalk. In Stage One there will be a big hall lined with picture windows opening onto seascapes alive with oddly shaped and colorful specimens. There will be a 60-foot tank where visitors can observe the underwater antics of walruses, sea lions and such through glass panels, or they can mount along the ramp and look down upon the activity from above the water levels. Outdoor pools will contain the penguins and turtles. As the institution grows, more rarities will go on display.
Something is always happening at the Aquarium, like the time Antennarius scaber, the fishing frogfish with the face and shape of a ward heeler, ate five times his own length in sea horses before they could corral the herd. There will be hitches and there will be bugs to be ironed out before the new institution is running smoothly, but most of the biggest headaches are over. It is good to see Coates and his curious sea critters back in business again. New York hasn't been the same without an aquarium.