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These machines may not look fancy, but they are an integral part of our aquariums!

If you’ve ever been to Paws On, it’s likely you’ve seen our giant Indian River Play Lagoon area where children are invited to splash around. You’ve probably also come nose-to-tank with some of our underwater creatures in the aquarium, or gotten your hands wet in our marine touch tank. But do you know what it takes to operate these iconic Zoo attractions?

Just behind the touch tank lies our aquarium life support building, aptly named as it holds the tools to ensure all of our aquatic animals—horseshoe crabs, hermit crabs, stingrays and snook, to name a few—are given a clean, healthy environment where they can thrive as they would in their natural lagoon habitats. The building supports the 300-gallon marine touch tank, the 20,000-gallon aquarium and the Indian River Play Lagoon pool.

The life support building is operated by three full-time aquarists at the Zoo, as well as four other keepers who are cross-trained to fill in as needed. Because it is full of constantly-operating machinery, the building is very noisy.

“No noise is a bad sign. It means something isn’t working as it properly should be,” said aquarist Jeremy Bray.

The tanks within Paws On are a closed system, meaning natural waste and leftover food cannot wash away on its own. One of the main functions of the life support building, which opened in 2009 in conjunction with the renovation of Paws On, is to supply and filter the water that directly goes into the aquarium and touch tank.

Because the Zoo is not located close enough to a source of water, the water that goes into our tanks must be mixed onsite. We use a carbon filter to screen the incoming city water and remove chlorine and other harmful chemicals. That filtered water is then used to make our manmade salt water.

Our aquarists aren’t just pouring Morton salt into the water; they are shipped a special marine-friendly salt. They use over 20,000 lbs. of it each year!

Our job isn’t done once the salt water has been created. Next, it passes through a complex filtration system consisting of two protein “skimmers” that remove waste material by pumping ozone into the water. We also have two bead filters, which break down waste using beneficial bacteria. The final piece of our system is a deaeration machine, which takes out any remaining ozone and dissolves the oxygen in the water.

Our aquarists refer to the water inside the touch tank and aquarium as “brackish,” because it is a mixture of freshwater and saltwater, much like the water in estuaries like the Indian River Lagoon. But you won’t have to worry about our marine animals, because most of them are euryhaline, meaning they can live in saltwater or freshwater.

Our aquarium life support building may look like a lot of heavy machinery, but it serves a purpose that is essential to our core value of animal wellness. By maintaining a habitat for these creatures that mimics the Indian River Lagoon, we are able to provide the best possible environment for these water dwellers!