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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Meet the fishes

By FRANK CARINI/ News staff

NORTH KINGSTOWN — Mark Hall could sit for hours in front of the Mangrove Tank that greets visitors when they enter his Biomes Marine Biology Center, except he’s much too busy caring for the 2,500 animals whose popularity keeps the educational center open seven days a week.

The 600-gallon tank filled with northern puffers, winter flounder, pompanos, striped mullets, spider crabs and tautog, among other species listed on a four-page laminated catalog, is the signature exhibit in this tranquil oasis on Post Road. The tank and its entire system were donated to the center by Roger Williams University, which had received the display years ago from the New England Aquarium in Boston.

Once the tank was in his possession and set up, it took the 48-year-old Hall a few weeks to realize what he was looking at. “It dawned on me that I had stood in front of this tank as a young kid visiting the New England Aquarium,” he said. “Years later, I own it.”

Hall’s fascination with marine life began at a young age, and it went beyond staring at displays at New England’s premier aquarium. By the time he was 14, Hall was running his own specimen collection business, collecting marine animals from Narragansett Bay and the Atlantic Ocean for researchers.

After graduating from Cumberland High School, Hall attended the University of New Hampshire where he studied biology. When he graduated, Hall returned to Rhode Island and went back to collecting local marine animals. He took his assembled associates on the road, visiting Rhode Island elementary schools to teach students about the creatures that call the Ocean State’s waters home.

Soon, Hall had named his educational road show Biomes and he was working out of a garage in Exeter. In 1997, he began renting 1,500 square feet of space in the Shady Lea Mill complex. The space was small and out of the way, but it allowed Hall to be open on Sundays and host small bus tours.

But after 15 years, the popularity of Hall’s associates outgrew the mill space, so last year he moved his tanks, displays and equipment to 6640 Post Road. His new 12,000 square feet of space opened to the public on Christmas Eve — a hundred people showed up.

The center is now open seven days a week, with Sundays and holidays attracting the biggest crowds. A small staff of full- and part-time employees helps Hall care for the animals, clean the tanks, repair equipment and run the business. There’s also no shortage of volunteers and support from the community.

The center features 90 exhibits, including 10 touch tanks for curious children. Most of the animals on display were collected by Hall, his staff or volunteers from local marine waters. “We collect most of the animals from shallow water when they are at a very young age,” Hall said. “If they grow up here, they adapt better.”

Hall believes the Biomes Marine Biology Center has the largest private collection of New England marine life in the world. The non-native animals that call Biomes home, such as a tortoise, an alligator snapping turtle from the Mississippi River and poison dart frogs, are rescues.

There’s no need to fear the dart frogs, however. Their skin isn’t poisonous, because they haven’t dined on the Amazon ants that make touching them dangerous.

The for-profit center doesn’t buy or sell any animals or equipment. Hall said the mission is educational. “It’s about teaching kids about these wonderful animals,” he said.

The center has no shortage of interesting animals. There’s an octopus that can twist off the cap of a glass jar to get to the shrimp inside. Like a mood ring, the octopus turns purple when frustrated or red when angry.

There’s a sea mouse, which is really a worm. There are seahorses, pipefish, a cownose ray, toadfish, skates, hogchokers, winter and summer flounder, and a rare calico lobster. There’s a Reptile Corner and an in-the-works commercial fishing exhibit.

A 7-pound black drum swims alone in a tank. Hall found the fish seven years ago while scuba diving off Newport. The juvenile fish, only a few inches long, was trapped in a piece of PVC piping. “I saw this piece of PVC pipe spinning around,” said Hall, as he did a swirling motion with his index finger on his right hand. “The fish was stuck inside. He couldn’t get out.”

Hall couldn’t free the fish underwater, so he brought the trapped fish back to Biomes and cut the pipe just inches from the black drum’s nose. Scales and fins had been ripped off during its frantic struggle in the piece of PVC.

Black drums can live 40-50 years and grow to weigh 100 pounds, according to Hall.

The center’s most popular exhibit is the Shark Petting Tank, which features dogfish sharks that local commercial fishermen have caught by accident. Just make sure to pet these docile creatures behind the eyes, or they will dart away. Commercial fishermen also have supplied the center with a small collection of catsharks.

The Doughnut Tank — a blue circle of fiberglass that Hall found in the woods behind the University of Rhode Island in what he called an “equipment graveyard” — houses a pair of striped sea robins that constantly swim around the exhibit, often with their pectoral finsopening and closing like a bird’s wings in flight. Hence the name.

“Sea robins don’t like being penned up in a tank,” Hall said. “They like to keep moving.”

Sand from 30 Rhode Island beaches fills the bottom of most of the tanks. An information sheet at each tank tells visitors from what Ocean State beach the exhibit’s sand is from. 

Most of the sand was collected by Facebook followers, who saw a post requesting sand and left buckets of labeled sand at the center’s front door, including a bucket from a Block Island beach. “I think I only collected three beaches myself,” Hall said. “The community support we have received has been tremendous.”

The Biomes Marine Biology Center is open to the public Sundays from 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Monday through Friday from noon-5 p.m. The center is reserved Saturdays for private parties.