UC Aquarium could display endangered corals, South Florida ecosystems


As the result of a bill passed through the Student Government (SG) Senate on Sept. 16, the Whitten University Center could soon provide a serene space for fish to swim around coral reefs of different shapes and sizes behind a backdrop of tranquil blue water.

Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS) Senator Sam May has been working on his dream project of implementing a 1,100-gallon aquarium in the UC for three years. As a relaxing sight for students and a preservation tank for inhabitants of marine life, the aquarium can offer a lot for the campus hangout.

As a marine science and biology double major, May is active on both the Coral Gables campus and RSMAS campus on Virginia Key, but he feels the latter is not as well known as it should be. The aquarium would serve as a permanent reminder of the work being done at RSMAS.

“It would be a bridge between RSMAS campus and the main campus,” May, a senior said. “We have one of the best marine science programs, and all we have to show for it on the main campus is a little office in the Ungar building.”

While the L-shaped aquarium would invite students to observe and be surrounded by aquatic life, it would also serve as something more important. It would house hundreds of endangered corals, protecting them while educationally displaying them.

Many of the corals were saved by May himself, along with Professor Andrew Baker of RSMAS, who worked with May before the Port of Miami was dredged last year. The initiative to dredge the port freed up space to allow newer, larger cargo ships to enter from the Panama Canal but also resulted in the endangerment and killing of thousands of corals.

With special permits, May and Baker were able to rescue the endangered Caribbean stony corals to store them for research and preservation purposes. With their permit, the corals can be displayed in the aquarium for educational purposes. It would be one of only a few aquariums in the world to feature these threatened corals.

May’s vision is for the aquarium to incorporate the three major marine ecosystems of South Florida: coral reefs, mangroves and sea grasses. The entrance to the sitting area would have mangrove trees growing from the floor and there would be colorful fishes and invertebrates swimming around the fluorescent reef.

May consulted two architecture students to help design the aquarium. In the UC, they found the perfect space right next to the stairs on the first floor. Students Rhys Gilbertson and Matthew Smith came up with a design, rendering May’s dream to a physical image.

“They had conceptual minds and went off with the design,” May said. “They came back to me with this cool rendering and, thanks to that, I gained a lot of traction with the project.”

To use the space, May spoke to Daniel Westbrook, the executive director of the Student Center Complex, who advised May on the project’s feasibility. He helped with identifying the space, long-term scenarios and cost estimations for maintenance and construction.

“This proposed project has the potential to add beauty and tie in to our South Florida environment,” Westbrook said. “All the space would be available to students for relaxation, study and socializing.”

The issue of maintaining the aquarium tank, on the other hand, is a major obstacle.

“We have to consider what happens to the tanks during semester breaks and in the event of power failure or equipment failure,” Westbrook said. “Sam has done an outstanding job in trying to pin down the costs, suggesting options for funding and working with a number of University of Miami and community individuals and companies to move this closer to reality.”

Last year, May’s project had to be put on hold because he was told the project was too expensive. There were two financial components to the aquarium: the initial installation and the long-term maintenance, which would need to be paid annually.

“I worked on this for a year, and basically they told me the answer was no,” May lamented. “The proposal was not firm enough and there were more questions than answers.”

The project was put on hold until this past summer when he received a presidential scholarship at the Marine Aquarium Conference of North America. May said it was the “Comic-Con of aquariums,” and he built a strong network of contacts who could help him with his project.

One such contact was Living Color, the company that runs the show “Fish Tank Kings” on National Geographic. The reality television series follows aquarium specialists as they create intricate aquariums that ensure the welfare of sea creatures and plants.

Since the company is familiar with large-scale installations for aquariums, they agreed to help May with the project.

May also met Dr. Charlie Gregory, a veterinarian who runs a company called Healthy Aquatics LLC., which specializes in aquarium maintenance. He offered to do the long-term maintenance with his company at a significantly reduced price.

May now has a famous company that specializes in aquarium installation willing to work at a reduced cost and a company that would help with the maintenance for less than a third of the original estimates.

It was time to push the proposal forward to see it come to fruition. May had a reasonable financial proposal and, as a senator, had contacts within Student Government. SG Vice President Ishtpreet Singh assisted May tremendously by making the project a Student Government initiative.

“There are numerous benefits for students and staff; in regards to academics, the aquarium would be an invaluable teaching tool for professors to physically demonstrate the uniqueness of our landscape to both marine science and non-marine science majors,” Singh, a senior, said. “Additionally, students’ enhanced knowledge of marine life through interaction with this conservation-oriented aquarium could lead to them becoming more responsible users and stewards of this region’s coastal environments;”

The bill to support the installation of the aquarium was passed in a Student Government Senate meeting on Sept. 16 – a major victory for May’s initiative. Now, he will take it to the Division of University Advancement to attempt to find donors for the installation’s cost.

“The University of Miami is one of the only universities in the United States with access to a live coral reef ecosystem,” May said. “Bringing that to our campus is emblematic of the visions of the university. It’s a good way to incorporate a piece of Miami onto our campus.”

For May, it’s one step at a time. The project is still in the planning stages, and there’s still plenty to do. But his hope for himself, the campus community and marine wildlife, is that this aquatic dream will one day become reality.