Beth Duckett, The Republic | azcentral.comes

Hammerhead sharks, a martini-shaped aquarium and animatronic sea captains are just some of the wonders visitors can expect at the OdySea Aquarium, opening July 2016 on the Salt River Reservation.

Groundbreaking occurred earlier this month on the three-story, 200,000-square-foot aquarium, ushering in a new wave of construction for the larger OdySea Aquarium complex.

The aquarium will be part of a $175 million entertainment complex that will be built on 35 acres near Scottsdale leased from the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community.

The first phase of OdySea included the Butterfly Wonderland and OdySea Mirror Maze/Laser Maze. The aquarium will be built next door on the northeastern corner of Via de Ventura and Loop 101 and is set to open the three-day weekend of July 2-4, 2016.

“OdySea in the Desert will become I believe the Number 1 man-made destination attraction in the Valley of the Sun,” said Amram Knishinsky, founder of OdySea in the Desert.

The entertainment complex will include the aquarium along with an indoor skydiving venue, an international food court, an IMAX theater and other projects that have not been announced, said Blessing McAnlis-Vasquez, Talking Stick Resort marketing manager.

“Look for a lot of development in the next two years,” she said.

Knishinsky said the complex will have retail space with workshops where people create glass and candles on site.

“It becomes an experience because the public likes to see how things are actually made,” he said.

OdySea will be built around a one-acre center court that will be similar to a town square, complete with an events stage, shade and fountains, he said.

“There are a number of other attractions which will be announced, and opened actually before we open the aquarium because it doesn’t take as long to build those attractions,” Knishinsky said.

The aquarium will employ more than 250 people, as well as hundreds of volunteers.

It will be unique in that many of the features have never been introduced in the United States, Knishinsky said.

It will combine marine life with the technology found at a Disney theme park, he said.

Knishinsky described some elements people can expect at the aquarium:

— Acrylic tube walkways to move between levels.

— A lobby with aquariums shaped like bowls hanging from the ceiling at different heights. Each bowl will weigh thousands of pounds and contain fish of a certain color.

— Hammerhead sharks, which Knishinsky said are expensive and difficult to obtain. Other examples of marine life include mahi-mahi fish, turtles, octopus, jellyfish and seahorses.

— A restaurant called Lighthouse Cafe with seating for more than 300 people.

— A penguin exhibit with stadium-style seating.

— SeaTrek Experience technology, which allows visitors to descend into the aquarium using a specialized helmet. Visitors can take guided walking tours along the “ocean floor,” no diving certification required, according to the OdySea website.

— Feature films about species not found at the aquarium.

— A martini-glass aquarium that stands 11 feet high with roughly 1,000 swimming anchovies.

Rachel Sacco, president and chief executive officer of the Scottsdale Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the OdySea Aquarium at the Talking Stick Destination will benefit not only the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, but also Scottsdale and the surrounding area.

“The Talking Stick Destination developments are creating a tremendous pull for visitors to explore our region, and are a great complement to the attractions and amenities throughout Scottsdale,” she said in a statement.

But Parks, who admits the Tempe Sea Life is “pretty cool,” and that he also likes the aquariums at Wildlife World Zoo, is confident the Odysea Aquarium, scheduled for completion in 2015, will be the city’s best yet—not to mention the best possible showcase for a fish tank guy.

“It’s about time Phoenix got a real aquarium, and now it’s finally happening,” he says. “And it’s going to be sitting there right between Butterfly Wonderland and the Loop 101, so everybody’s going to be able to see it. That’s the coolest part.”

‘Tanked’ Out

It’s the biggest fish story in reality TV. On “Tanked,” the surprise hit Animal Planet series now in its fourth season, viewers follow the work and antics of a couple of boisterous brothers-in-law who run the busiest custom aquarium business in Las Vegas. Every week, Brett Raymer and Wayde King create wild, elaborate fish tanks for the biggest hotels on the Vegas Strip, and a few well-to-do clients.

Some clients ask for elaborate fish tanks that are often too impractical to build or maintain. Simpler designs can often be equally as impressive as the one pictured here, created by Custom Marine Aquaria.

Before the real estate crash, rock star “aquarists” like the “Tanked” guys were popping up in every big city and were sought after by wealthy homeowners for the latest status symbol—what a 2010 New York Times article dubbed “The Six-Figure Fish Tank.” The custom aquarium was to be the new custom home theater, the latest way to impress the hard-to-impress.

That never quite happened, says Knishinsky, who runs in such social circles and has yet to see many half-million-dollar fish tanks in homes. “To be truthful, the recession has really hurt that business,” he says. “And if they (aquarium designers)tell you anything different, they’re not revealing what’s happened in the last five years. It’s a big expenditure to do something on a large scale and continually maintain it. You need to be in a certain income bracket. And not a lot of people can afford that kind of thing now.”

Many who got into the custom aquarium business to design six-figure fish tanks have wound up cleaning aquariums in dentists’ offices—not that they’re complaining too much in this still sluggish economy.

“I run around cleaning aquariums all day long, but my favorite thing to do is to build new setups for people,” says DJ Payne of AAA Reefs, a Valley aquarium company that specializes in live corals, the latest trend in tanks.

“Obviously you also make a lot more money doing that vs. being a fish janitor. In a perfect world I’d be doing that all day and having someone else cleaning the aquariums. But that’s not the reality of the business.”

It helps to nab the few high-end customers out there if you’re one of the affiliated installers for the company featured on “Tanked,” Acrylic Tank Manufacturing, which bills itself as the world’s largest custom aquarium manufacturer. For a bargain fee of $300 a year, Acrylic Tank Manufacturing will list local aquarium companies on its website—if it deems them capable of installing or creating the kinds of tanks Brett and Wayde create.

In Arizona, only two companies show up on the list: Custom Marine Aquaria in Scottsdale and Gilbert, and Artistic Aquariums in Chandler. Mark Collier of Custom Marine Aquaria, who calls himself the “Arizona Fish Guy,” says the connection has been good for business, to a degree.

Animal Planet’s surprise hit “Tanked,” now in its fourth season, follows the work and antics of a couple of boisterous brothers-in-law who run the busiest aquarium business in Las Vegas.

Animal Planet’s surprise hit “Tanked,” now in its fourth season, follows the work and antics of a couple of boisterous brothers-in-law who run the busiest aquarium business in Las Vegas.[/caption]“We’ve gotten a few leads and a few small jobs from them, nothing big,” he says. “We’re doing a job for a doctor’s office in Yuma now. It’s a 1,000-gallon tank and we’re hand-building all the prefabricated coral reef inserts. They wanted the ‘Tanked’ guys to do it, and they were referred to me. They’ve gotten so busy, thanks to the show, that if they get a job that’s too small for them, they farm it out to one of their affiliates. And if we come to them with a big job, they say there’s a chance they’ll put us on the show. But that hasn’t happened yet.”

Erik Matthaeus of Artistic Aquariums says the show has been great for generating interest in custom big-budget tanks, but he acknowledges that clients get unrealistic expectations of what’s feasible from watching the heavily edited series.

“When they reveal a brand-new aquarium with all those fish thrown in there, you can’t do that under normal circumstances,” he says. “Especially with the kinds of fish they choose. You would never stick all these exotic fish in a tank together right after you fill it up.” Some of the tanks featured on the show are also too impractical to maintain, Matthaeus says. “You get clients who ask for things they’ve seen on ‘Tanked’ or ‘Fish Tank Kings’ (a competing show on the National Geographic channel), and you have to say, ‘Sorry, you can’t really have a tank like that.’”

Worst yet are the clients who get inspired by the shows, put all the wheels in motion, and then run out of money before the project can be finished.

“We had one client who wanted a fish tank over the staircase so as you walked down to the basement, you walked under the fish tank and there would be a porthole to the kitchen (and) you could see into this aquarium,” says Collier. “We got into the design phase of that, made a prototype, brought a contractor in, decided how we were going to open up this wall and run the support beams. And then they squashed it because it ran over their budget. That happens a lot.”

Two Schools of Clients

When it comes to customers for high-end custom aquariums, clients generally fall between two extremes. On one end, there are those for whom a lavish fish tank is more a work of art and the fish are merely moving pieces—“living art,” as aquarists like to call it. On the other end are people who are all about the fish.
“In my job, I actually prefer the people who view tanks as living art, because they let me take charge of the fish and choose the ones that do best in captivity,” says Payne. “The people who are really into the fish can come to treat the fish like their dog.”

Parks, too, has done tanks for clients who seemed just a little too close to their fish. “We did a tank once for a couple that was a long, 20-foot tank,” he recalls, describing a tank that stretched from a shower wall to a bedroom. “So you go into the shower, and the fish follow you there, ’cause that’s what fish do. And then you go into the bedroom, and the fish follow you to that side.” He laughs. “Some people have a very close relationship with their fish.”

Clients who care more about the tanks are big on trends, says Neal Moir of Titan Aquatic Exhibits. “The big rectangular box of water is kind of out,” he says. “We can build squares for anybody. But the cool thing now is doing different shapes: bow front and bull nose (tanks shaped like a bullet) and cylinders.”

Moir says one of his most demanding projects was building a 1,200-gallon tank over an archway in a private residence in Florida (much of Titan’s business is actually done out of state). “It was very tall, had a complicated arch to build into, but that’s what they wanted.”

Among the Valley aquarium builders “Arizona Fish Guy,” Mark Collier is famous for having built a $200,000 tank embedded into the floor of a residence that snaked through the game room and emptied into an outdoor pond.

Among the Valley aquarium builders “Arizona Fish Guy,” Mark Collier is famous for having built a $200,000 tank embedded into the floor of a residence that snaked through the game room and emptied into an outdoor pond. [/caption]The aquarium designer has to be a jack-of-all trades to make fantasy fish tanks come alive. “You have to be a plumber, electrician, builder, chemist and an artist, too,” says Payne. It also helps to be a scuba diver, as the bigger tanks require some diving to maintain. Among Valley aquarium builders, Collier is famous for having built a $200,000 tank embedded into the floor of a residence that snaked through a game room and finally emptied out into an outdoor pond.

“That’s pretty tough to do,” says Parks. “Because it’s all about temperature control. And especially in Arizona, having a tank that’s part indoors and outdoors is really difficult to cool.”

To get the really big jobs, though, in a field largely fueled by word-of-mouth, it’s perhaps most important to also know the right people.

That’s how Parks got the prized Odysea Aquarium gig from Knishinsky. “Ironically, Amram was my landlord about 13 years ago, when I had a retail fish store on Scottsdale and Shea,” Parks says. “Amram owned that whole corridor, and he was my landlord.” Parks had a fish store in another Knishinsky venture, the Simply Artrageous co-op at Scottsdale Pavilions, but then they fell out of touch.

“Ten years later he calls me and says, ‘Hey, we’re doing this thing called Odysea in the Desert. Are you still doing aquariums?’ And I was like, “Yeah! Let’s do it!’” he says. “Sometimes it just comes down to a little dumb luck.”