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Shark-filled waters for Aquarium’s future

$100 million is a lot of clams, but that’s how much the New York Aquarium figures it needs to keep up with the Joneses in Coney Island.

The Wildlife Conservation Society, along with Mayor Mike Bloomberg, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz and City Councilmember Domenic Recchia, have announced an ambitious 10-year public/private partnership to revitalize the 52-year-old aquarium located at 602 Surf Avenue -- and the $100 million is just to get them started.

“I want this to be the most attractive venue in the city,” aquarium Director Jon Dohlin said. “This is our move to say we’ve been here for 52 years, we’ve fallen behind, but this is our moment to change that.”

With new zoning nearly in place next door to facilitate the re-imagining of Coney Island’s amusement district, the pressure on the aquarium to keep pace is real.

“Coney Island is poised for exciting growth and the New York Aquarium is an important part of that vision,” Bloomberg said.

To accomplish that goal, the aquarium is placing its hopes on the ocean’s biggest marquee draw - sharks.

The aquarium gave up one of its most popular attractions four years ago when it shipped out Coney Island’s beloved Beluga whales.

Since then, the eight sharks - five sandbar sharks, two nurse sharks and one white tip reef shark -- silently cruising the aquarium’s underwater exhibit have been the facility’s sexiest draw.

But when the first phase of the aquarium’s “Sea Change” is complete, Brooklyn will become home to a wide variety of 30 to 35 new “eating machines.”

“First and foremost, this is about conservation,” Dohlin said. “Sharks are a really important story.”

Among other things, experts say that sharks are good indicators of the health of ecosystems.

Planners will begin designing the new shark tank exhibit next month. The groundbreaking is expected to follow late in 2011 or early 2012.

A completely new Conservation Hall, re-imagined Aquatheater and expanded marine conservation program are also part of the “Sea Change.”

The aquarium’s much maligned exterior is also due for a makeover - one that “opens up” the facility to the nearby Atlantic Ocean.

“We are one of the very few aquariums throughout the country that is right on the beach and you can’t see the beach,” Recchia said during a gala fundraising event held the aquarium last week. “That always bothered me. That’s why our new shark exhibit is going to be built up - you’re going to see the beautiful ocean, you’re going to see the beautiful shark exhibit.”

Despite the ambitious plans, officials say that the aquarium will remain open and accessible throughout theentire construction process.

Around $20 million is still needed for the initial phase of the project, but the aquarium’s director says that ticket prices will not be increased.

Currently, admission to the aquarium is $13 for adults, $9 for kids and 10 for senior citizens.

“We don’t anticipate any increase,” Dohlin said.

While the aquarium’s footprint will not change, Dohlin did leave open the possibility that at least part of the facility’s 14.1 acre-site devoted to parking could be developed for new exhibits.

“The aquarium is going to be utterly transformed,” Dohlin said.

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