Fifty-six years ago, Marathon almost had an aquarium. And now construction has begun to build a new facility — in exactly the same spot.
“If you look closely at this photo, you can see that they are just starting to build the Vaca Cut Bridge,” said Ben Daughtry of Dynasty Marine.
An aerial shot of the old aquarium reveals a couple of tanks, three sides of a very rectangular canal and a short and squat round building with tiny windows. The project’s main backer was Jack Browne and his partners were Floyd Lamb and Ralph Cunningham Jr. Started in 1957, the aquarium project was never finished. In 1960, Hurricane Donna essentially wiped it off the map. The round building would later become the first home of St. Columba Episcopal Church. Other longtime locals remember it as a real estate office, too.
Daughtry and his partner, Forrest Young, are building the new state-of-the-art facility set to open next summer. The idea has been percolating since the mid ‘90s, Daughtry said.
“I’ve been thinking about this since my first visit to Curacao. My buddy had a similar interactive aquarium there,” he said. Although Daughtry was an experienced diver already, he was impressed by the reaction of others. “The expression on their faces … I knew that it would be a great thing to do here.”
Marathon’s aquarium would differ from other Keys attractions in that the focus of the sealife interaction wouldn’t be focused on marine mammals. Also, there will be a range of activities for everyone in the family to enjoy. The plan is to build bridges across the 6-foot-wide canals and install touch tanks on the center island. There will also be a place to feed the fish, probably from the mangrove banks. Some type of classroom setting is also planned. But the star attraction will be an enormous sealife and swimming tank — 75 feet long, 40 feet across and 10 feet deep. Visitors will be able to snorkel and dive in the tank to get a close-up look at Keys marine life and habitat. Daughtry and Young call it an “immersive” experience.
“Visitors will be able to submerse themselves, and touch and feel. It will be hands-on without being out in the ocean,” Young said.
The aquarium is a huge undertaking, but Young and Daughtry are no strangers to big projects. The quiet little marine collection business on the backside of the airport does big business. It supplies marine specimens ranging from a neon goby to large sharks to all the big public aquariums — Seaworld in both Florida and California, The Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, and the New England Aquarium in Boston. Recently, it undertook its biggest project to date — collecting creatures to fit in custom tanks that were loaded onto a chartered 747 and flown to Singapore for the opening of a brand new public aquarium there.
“Talk about logistics …” said Young with a smile.
All of the collecting, of course, is done with the strictest attention paid to the law. In the Dynasty Marine office, at least two dozen permits are framed and hung on the wall. It serves to remind the employees, and notify the public, about the company’s attention to detail and homage to ethical harvest.
“We consider the fish we send out to be ambassadors of the species,” Young said. “And our aquarium will also be about promoting conservation and marine education.”