See A Coral Reef Ecosystem Come to Life at the St. Lucie County Aquarium

See A Coral Reef Ecosystem Come to Life at the St. Lucie County Aquarium

SOUTH HUTHCHINSON ISLAND – Those who have visited the Smithsonian Marine Ecosystems Exhibit at the St. Lucie County Aquarium on South Hutchinson Island in Fort Pierce, know that the centerpiece of the Exhibit is the 2,500 gallon Caribbean Coral Reef Ecosystem visible through the front doors.

This beautiful living coral exhibit boasted dozens of species of fish, corals, and other invertebrates. It was simply teeming with life – life that was unexpectedly evicted from its home at the start of the New Year due to a hidden leak in the sixteen-year-old exhibit. Now, aquarists are taking the opportunity to renovate the exhibit. As a result the public has a once-in-a-lifetime chance to view the rebuilding of a live coral reef model ecosystem.

The Caribbean Coral Reef Ecosystem Exhibit was not only beautiful, it has a fascinating history. The Exhibit began its journey wowing the public at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. in 1980. Then in 2001, it was transported to Fort Pierce and reestablished at the newly constructed St. Lucie County Aquarium.

Some of the display’s coral skeletons serving as the base of the reef were only a couple of hundred years old. Other rocks used to build the reef ranged from 100,000 to more than 100 million years old. Not only did the amazing exhibit contain living coral – but the rocks and sand were also living – packed with bacteria, sponges, worms and other tiny critters that serve as nature’s recyclers. It was home to sea stars, urchins, and sea cucumbers – as well as animals as large as a gorgeous Queen Angelfish and as small as microscopic plankton.

Needless to say, the task of breaking down the exhibit was not an easy one. The leak was underneath a false bottom in the tank. That was covered by more than a 1,000 pounds of sand, coral skeletons and the living reef itself; everything had to be removed in order to access the leak.

The reef was broken down, piece by piece and all of the organisms were moved into holding tanks or to other facilities. The 500-gallon saltwater reservoir located on the Aquarium’s second level, is serving as the temporary home for the Exhibit’s live corals. Most of the rocks used to build the reef structure are residing in five, 100+ gallon tubs located in front of the empty aquarium.

With the aquarium empty and its plastic skeleton exposed, staff are making plans to clean, improve and rebuild the Exhibit – a process the public has the opportunity to observe. As a result, Smithsonian Exhibit Manager Bill Hoffman is turning a negative into a positive.

“This is a once-in-lifetime opportunity to improve both the look and functionality of our coral reef exhibit.  And, while there’s still a lot of scraping and cleaning to do before we get to sanding and polishing the inside viewing windows, when the project is completed, the aquarium will look like new again,” said Hoffman.

The rebuilding of the reef will go from the bottom up. Once the leak is repaired, the tank will be filled with fresh water to pressure test. The aquarium will be filled with saltwater as the reef structure is being built.

After the water chemistry is stable, the anemones, corals, and other invertebrates (such as sea urchins and sea stars) will be added. Lastly, fish will be added beginning with the least aggressive fish and working up to the more dominant species. The Aquarium will be open throughout the process. This  gives the public the opportunity to be a part of the building process.

“We get so many questions about the history of our Coral Reef Exhibit and how it was built, and although this leak has been quite stressful for staff and specimens alike, it definitely presents a unique educational opportunity” said Jasmine Fox, marine biology educator. “Creating a live reef Aquarium, especially of this magnitude, requires knowledge not only in marine biology – but in chemistry, ecology, engineering and more. Staff and volunteers will be on hand throughout the process to speak with visitors and answer questions.”

Aside from the Caribbean Coral Reef, Aquarium exhibits include five other model ecosystem aquaria showcasing ecosystems of the Indian River Lagoon and Atlantic Ocean. Guests can also visit the touch tank, featuring Indian River Lagoon inhabitants such as horseshoe crabs, sea stars and sea urchins. Adventurous visitors can even get a manicure from the always popular cleaner shrimp at no extra charge! Feeding tours are offered daily at 10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. as underwater residents enjoy their daily meals.

Aquarium hours are Monday-Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Sundays from noon to 4 p.m. Aquarium admission is $4 for adults and $3 for children and seniors (age 55+). Children ages 3 and under are free. Aquarium memberships are available starting at $15. The Smithsonian Exhibit is located in the St. Lucie County Aquarium at 420 Seaway Drive on South Hutchinson Island in Fort Pierce.

The Smithsonian Marine Station has teamed with St. Lucie County and other community partners to create this unique educational facility. The Exhibit is an outreach effort of the Smithsonian Marine Station, a branch of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History.  A fixture in the Fort Pierce community for more than 40 years, the Marine Station is dedicated to understanding the character and diversity of the marine and estuarine habitats of Florida. For more information, visit

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