Fish fan has big dreams for public aquarium

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— Some people dream in baby steps and others dream in footprints that span the Yampa Valley. Twenty-seven-year-old Gavin Graham is the latter.

A year ago, Graham purchased Tropical Rockies, a fish, reptile and aquarium store on South Lincoln Avenue. Now, he hopes to help build a public aquarium in Steamboat Springs

Graham has been collecting fish and fish knowledge since the day he won a goldfish in plastic bag back in elementary school. That first fish, named "Rambo," lived for seven years. As a junior in high school, he bought a two-gallon freshwater aquarium.

"It snowballed from there," Graham said.

Graham is self-taught in his knowledge of marine life.

"I've seen hundreds of animals pass away as I learned," he said. "That teaches you respect and humility. If you are going to create a captive world, you need to take care of it."

As Graham talks about his fish, he sounds like a preacher or an activist. He speaks in lists of right and wrongs. He tries to keep his processes natural and not chemical. "For me, the animals come first."

The visitors to his store often have more curiosity than money in their pockets. They stay for hours looking into the tanks and asking questions.

It's that line of people that has convinced Graham that a public aquarium would be successful in Steamboat Springs.

As he fed the fish and cleaned the tanks at Tropical Rockies, the idea grew in Graham's mind. He pictures a captive breeding program for fish, reptiles and coral reef polyps.

"All our reefs will be gone in 20 years because of pollution, boats dropping anchor and collectors," he said. "No one has ever tried large-scale breeding of marine animals above 7,000 feet.

"This is a moral issue for me. If we can grow those animals in an aquarium, then we will no longer need to rape and abuse nature. It's the least we can do for the ocean."

Graham's vision is to build an aquarium that operates completely off the grid using solar and wind power to operate. All tanks would be lit by the sun instead of electric lights.

Graham's dream aquarium would need 10 to 15 acres of land, he said. Reptiles would be housed in large greenhouses. Fresh and brackish water fish would be available to view in large tanks created to mimic their natural environments.

But the largest feature and the most important part of Graham's dream is a 100-yard wide, half-mile long naturally functioning section of coral reef. The section would begin at zero feet on one end with a bed of sand sloping down to a depth of 200 feet, Graham said.

The reef would be built into the side of a hill.

How will he pay for his dream? He doesn't know.

"It all depends on public opinion," he said. "I am a nature-oriented person and I have a sheer obsession with these animals. And I know there are people all over the world who are obsessed like me."

Gavin Graham is looking for input. Call him at 846-8004.

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