Saltwater aquarium at airport to help promote the Emerald Coast

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TONY JUDNICH @Tonyjnwfdn

DESTIN — Five blue and yellow damselfish, a spider-like arrow crab, red and orange sponges, coral that resemble giant noodles, and a lionfish that were pulled from the Gulf of Mexico on Monday soon will join other colorful creatures from the deep to help greet visitors at Destin Fort Walton Beach Airport.

A total of about 30-40 species, most of which are native, are about to go on display in a 210-gallon saltwater aquarium at the Emerald Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau Welcome Center at VPS.

The center, which will be operated by the Okaloosa County Tourist Development Department, stands by the airport’s baggage claim area and will have its grand opening at 9 a.m. Thursday.

“We’re going to try to make the aquarium as close to what you would see if you went diving off the coast of Destin,” Alex Fogg, the TDD’s marine resource coordinator, said before going on his second dive for species that will live at VPS.

On Monday morning, a 28-foot-long aluminum chambered boat called Dread Knot and captained by Joe Livingston carried Fogg and other passengers to a dive spot 3.6 miles from the Destin Harbor. 

Livingston said the Dread Knot once served as a harbor patrol boat in Washington state and was named for a World War II vessel. On Monday, he anchored it next to the same reef where other aquarium occupants were captured on March 23.

“There’s a lot of grouper down there,” Fogg said of the reef, which stands in a depth of about 100 feet. “We won’t be catching any of those, though. They would eat everything in the tank.”

While the boat bobbed on the water, Fogg and Livingston put on their diving suits and equipment and gathered nets and other gear.

“It’s kind of like trying to catch a bunch of butterflies,” Fogg said of the task ahead.

The water temperature was 66 degrees, which was 2 degrees warmer than the day of the initial dive.

But, “It’s not like the Keys,” Fogg said. “This water is not warm.”

When Fogg and Livingston resurfaced after their 25-minute dive, they were clutching mesh bags and plastic bags containing wildlife that inhabited a natural reef ledge, complete with the Emerald Coast’s famous white sand.

Once the men were back on board, they placed the captured damselfish, arrow crab, coral and lionfish in buckets of water. An aerator pumped oxygen into the containers of water to help the fish recover in their temporary surroundings, and sunlight revealed the red and orange colors of newly-retrieved sponges, which Fogg said looked green and black on the bottom of the Gulf.

He later noted that the lionfish caught Monday and during the earlier dive trip are an invasive species from the Indo-Pacific and have a very large appetite.

“But by putting them in a tank with fish that won’t fit in their mouth, you don’t run the risk of the other fish being eaten,” Fogg said. “And we’ll keep the fish in there pretty well fed” with pellet food and frozen shrimp.

The lionfish “are beautiful,” he added. “They’ll be the stars of the tank.”

Kerry Sutsko, the Convention and Visitors Bureau’s digital marketing strategist, said the marine life captured on Monday would be brought to the Bluewater Zoo in Fort Walton Beach, where they will be acclimated to an aquarium before being transferred to the welcome center’s tank.

During Monday’s dive, Fogg came across a crustacean-covered spear gun near the reef. He also spotted an octopus, which, despite its color-changing magic, wasn’t a candidate for the aquarium at the airport.

Octopi are “really smart and they would find their way out of the tank,” Fogg said.

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