WASHINGTON -- As Americans head into summer vacation, many can only dream of taking a trip to the South Pacific. Starting this summer, you'll only have to travel to Baltimore's National Aquarium to experience an Indo-Pacific coral reef.
The new Blacktip Reef experience (originally slated for a July 10 grand opening) introduces visitors to a multitude of coral and 70 species of animals in a 260,000-gallon tank, including 20 blacktip reef sharks, zebra sharks Zeke and Zoe, and Calypso, a 518-pound green sea turtle.
Click through the slideshow for a behind-the-scenes look at the exhibit, its creatures and how experts created coral. Story continues below.
The Blacktip Reef living exhibit is the first things visitors encounter upon entering the aquarium and "we really wanted to start with a bang," Jack Cover, general curator of the National Aquarium, told The Huffington Post in an interview, "so we went with the most tricked-out, diverse part of the ocean."
Beneath the surface of the water, coral reefs are like "cities in the ocean," Cover said, and "the Great Barrier Reef is like New York City." Up to a quarter of marine species rely on reefs for food and shelter.
While visitors may come for the animals, the takeaway is the coral.
Curators can't just transport an entire live coral reef from the sea to the aquarium, so custom coral was created.
The coral starts as big blocks of styrofoam carved into rough shapes; fiberglass structures are laid onto that and covered with a textured coat of polyester resin mixed with sand and stone. And don't worry -- the animals won't know the difference between live coral and the manmade version: "If you duplicate it like the wild, the animals will use it just like the wild habitat," Cover said.
Today the Blacktip Reef experience is open for visitors to view the tank from various vantage points, like an underwater cave and an aerial view of the shallows. Animals will join the exhibit gradually throughout the summer.
After the aquarium decided to delay adding sharks to the exhibit, the grand opening was pushed back for later this summer.