Packed to the Gills

The blue shadows of sharks circled ominously round and round the child. Then the toddler reached out and banged her hand on the glass. Her dad smiled.

On another recent day, the doctors at a local trauma center asked, "How the hell did you get bitten by a shark in Kitai-Gorod?," when a staff member from the Sea Aquarium at Chistiye Prudy came in, bleeding from bite wounds on his arm. "They thought he was drunk," said Mikhail Berezin, the director and founder of the aquarium.

The aquarium, which is the only one of its kind in Moscow, began as a one-room fish store in the basement of the art deco building near the pond at Chistiye Prudy in 1998. Since then, it has grown into a very popular, four-room weekend institution for families, experts and hobbyists alike.

"I don't advertise, because then there would be traffic jams up and down the Boulevard Ring," Berezin said.

If the crowds packing his venue are any indication, this is not an idle boast.

"This is our first visit, but we're really glad we came," said a woman carrying her grandson past a display of bright red-and-white-spotted crystal red shrimp.

Even though it was the boy's first time at the aquarium, he had already chosen the ray-shaped skate in a large bare tank in the main room as his favorite.

The aquarium's location is given away only by an unobtrusive blue sign, almost lost against the building, which is covered in bas-relief animals. Down a short stairway, visitors are greeted by a eerie moray eel hanging motionless from a crevice in the coral wall of its tank.

The aquarium's small size leads to some interesting contrasts. The cashier's desk sits above a touch tank filled with sea urchins, sea cucumbers and starfish. In the main room, one wall is a large glass tank with bulging goldfish swimming slowly through the water. The tank is pierced by two holes, behind which sit the women in the accounting office.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
A man holding his young son up to see fish swim by in the central hall of the four-room Sea Aquarium at Chistiye Prudy.
The area to the right of the entrance acts as a combined salesroom and display area.

On one side sits a 7.5-ton saltwater tank holding dozens of kinds of soft coral and electric pink, blue, green, yellow and red fish from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Singapore. The tank forms one wall of Berezin's office.

On the other side of the room is a wall of plastic boxes, each filled with fish for sale.

One fish swimming in a tank by itself was shaped like a boomerang, gray and edged in hunting-vest orange.

"That fish goes for 15,000 rubles [$640]," said Sergei Ilychkov, a manager at the aquarium.

Pointing to another tank holding small, brightly-colored clown fish, Ilychkov noted that they sell for just 590 rubles.

On a third wall, an array of white and clear plastic pipes -- in as complex a configuration as those in any nuclear power plant -- pump salt water through a range of filters.

A second room is dominated by an octagonal tank with a meter-long shark swimming the perimeter.

At the 1.3-ton "hard coral tank," Ilychkov pointed out his favorite specimen -- the Centropyge loriculus, also known as the flame angel, named for its orange body, black tiger stripes and purple fringe.

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Brightly colored tropical fish and a large manta ray make for a popular exhibit.
The filter in the hand-made hard coral tank pumps 10 tons of water an hour -- causing a strong current that ripples the green seaweed in the tank like wind through hair. The water in all of the tanks is kept at 26 degrees Celsius, since nearly all of the fish in the more than 200 tanks are tropical.

In one tank, two viciously territorial, yellow tang fish, shaped like lemon slices, fought over a grain of sand and a waving corner of purple coral.

The shark continued to swim in circles.

From these smaller rooms, a short corridor past the touch tank covered in fish photos leads to a big room filled with rectangular, square and spherical tanks of all sizes.

Here is the skate the little boy liked so much along with tropical fish from the Rift Valley lakes of East Africa, bright orange goldfish from Japan, a nautilus and hundreds of other specimens.

This room in particular is packed with dozens of children and their parents.

A man wearing a shiny black open-necked shirt and necklace with a manta ray pendant walked quickly by.

"Our business is divided between the middle class and hobbyists. They are the ones who will spend their last money on a fish," said Berezin, who headed a refrigerator-compressor manufacturing plant in Soviet times.

"We also install tanks for people in their homes. Our clients have included oligarchs, though I can't say which ones. The biggest tank we've installed was 60 tons," he said.

Ilychkov said a 1.3-ton tank cost $15,000, giving a vague indication of what a 60-ton tank might be worth.

Berezin, threading his way through the crowd, led the way to the shark room.

"It would be more profitable to put a restaurant here, so close to Chistiye Prudy, but when an older person comes in here and says, 'Thank God someone has finally done something good and educational for the community,' I feel good," said Berezin.

And the 1.5-meter, black-tipped sharks of the popular shark room kept swimming in circles as the visitors kept coming.