Day 7 / The Daze Between ... Wednesday, April 27


Today started out with the realization that I had to do my laundry. So I got to that task while Laurie did some catching up on post-Passover business. We got coffee and a quick bite downstairs, enough to tide us over until we got out. 

One of the reasons we like the Staybridge is that it has free full-size washers and dryers every few floors. It's not the most exciting part of the trip, but it needs to be done. 

We had the TV on in the hotel this morning, and the local weather was helping us plan our day. There was a pretty good chance of thunderstorms this afternoon, so we began to research the many indoor options in New Orleans. 

While the laundry was laundry-ing, I zipped out to the "Everything Shoppe" over on Canal Street to resupply some of the snacks and beverages in our suite. Then, around 11, we got out into the Louisiana sunshine, er, overcast. At that time the temperature was around 80, and it never really got much warmer than that today. However, the humidity all day was in the mid- to upper 70-percent range, so it was, to say the least, humid. There wasn't much of a breeze, either, except during the aforementioned thunderstorms, which did materialize.

Our first order of business was to stop in to that storefront area at the Sheraton on Canal Street, where we got Laurie's Jazz Fest tickets for the weekend and shuttle bus tickets for both of us. That was easily done. This place is a great discovery, because it saves a whole lot of service charge money. Makes me think that it won't be around forever once somebody from the ticket monster realizes it's there.  

Our second order of business was food. There isn't anyplace better to go for a quick, tasty, and relatively inexpensive late breakfast than Daisy Dukes on Chartres Street, just a block into the French Quarter. The restaurant was a little trickier to get to this year because of some major street repairs going on in that block of Chartres Street (meaning the street was closed and all torn up), but we were intrepid in our quest for Dukes. 

Our brunch was coffee and omelettes (alligator sausage for me, seafood for Laurie; I had hash browns and a biscuit with mine, Laurie had wheat toast and grits with hers). We were, as Dr. John would say (paraphrasing), in the right place at the right time. (That's an homage to Allen Toussaint's promo that he recorded for and is still played on WWOZ, a radio station, by the way, that you should be streaming ... all the time.)


While we were in Daisy Dukes, the first wave of thunderstorms rolled through. The storms today weren't massive (not even a half-inch of rain was recorded), but they certainly weren't anything to be out in because there was a ton of lightning and thunder. We were expecting this, thanks to the local TV in the hotel, and had already decided what we were going to do.

We left Daisy Dukes under cloudy but dry conditions, and headed down to the riverfront and the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas. We had such a good experience at the Audubon Insectarium on Day 6 in 2014 that we figured the aquarium would be a good (and dry) choice.

When you first enter the aquarium you are in an area known as the Great Maya Reef, designed to give the feeling of a submerged Mayan city off the Yucatán Peninsula. The Great Maya Reef's magnitude is second only to the Great Barrier Reef in Australia.

The main feature of this exhibit is a huge (132,000 gallons) tank that you walk through in a 30-foot tunnel. The tank is filled with cow-nose rays and hundreds of colorful fish that normally inhabit the Yucatán reefs of Mexico. We were lucky enough to be there when a couple of divers entered the tank to feed the fish. What a scene that was. 

Another tank in this area held a couple of large eels (yuck) poking out of a huge stone statue. Exhibits showed the difference between day and night in a coral reef, how artificial reefs are helping to maintain reef life in areas where natural reefs are degraded (there were cool spiny lobsters in here), the effects of invasive species (in this case lionfish) on the life in a reef, and differences in the life in deeper water compared with shallower.

At this point you took an escalator up to the Amazon Rainforest exhibit. It's an atrium with plenty of tall trees and includes a walkway that takes you up towards the treetops. Waterfalls cascade into several large open-top aquarium enclosures. Among the displays are big river fish, a shallow flooded forest, the Amazon River edge (with a large anaconda that fortunately we did not see), the obligatory piranhas, and something called Parakeet Pointe that has free-flying parakeets and other tropical birds. While we were in the rainforest, the expected storm was at its peak, somewhat appropriately, I guess. Parakeet Pointe was closed due to the storm, which was probably a good thing because one thing I remember from my parakeet experience as a kid is that they poop a lot.

Next up were penguins, a couple dozen South American rockhopper and African blackfooted types hanging out and swimming around (very quickly I might add). Again, we were lucky enough to be there at feeding time, which allowed for interaction between the visitors and a staffer doing commentary outside and one inside doing the feeding. It was fascinating to see him feeding the penguins and describing each one's personality and feeding habits. What do the penguins eat? A variety of small fish that includes capelin, herring, and trout.

The Living in Water exhibit that followed has various-sized exhibits that focus on the special attributes or circumstances of their inhabitants and how these creatures "make their living" in water, ranging from the symbiotic relationship between clownfish and anemones to noise-makers like white grunts, porkfish, and sheepsheads, which grunt, squeak, or even whistle by grinding their teeth, vibrating their swim bladders, or burping out air. Smaller native Louisiana fish, such as crappie, sunfish, and catfish, are featured in another exhibit. A large display of the invasive Rio Grande cichlid, which guards its eggs and fry, shows the danger of releasing foreign aquarium fish that out-compete native fish populations into extinction. There is also a display of live Indo-Pacific coral with royal blue tangs and bird wrasses.

The fascinating seahorses gallery was next. It contains three different types of these odd creatures that glide through the water by fluttering their dorsal fin 20 to 30 times per second while using their pectoral fins to steer. Their aquariums are planted with sea grasses, to which the seahorses can cling with their tails when they are stationary.

Next were sections devoted to frogs and sea otters. The otters must have been resting because there wasn't much to see there. Then there was an area called "Geaux Fish," devoted to the Louisiana fishing industry. This exhibit contained examples of bait fish as well as mid-sized specimens of red drum (aka the famous redfish, seen over on the right) and speckled trout.

The Mississippi River and bayous were next, an exhibit area set up to look like a riverside shack. One exhibit here features paddlefish, a primitive species with a spatula-like snout that is used to detect the weak electrical fields of small prey. Other exhibits house a large blue catfish and a school of channel catfish. The highlight of this gallery is the rare white alligator lounging around the dock.

Back on the main floor is a very large (400,000 gallons) tank with pilings covered in barnacles to represent a quarter-scale replica of an offshore oil rig. It is teeming with schools of fishes such as amberjacks and blue runners (bar jack), Atlantic spadefish, and yellowtail snappers, plus stingrays, a large green sea turtle, tarpon, two ferocious-looking sand tiger sharks, brown sharks, and nurse sharks.

The final exhibit contains eight specially designed exhibit tanks called kriesels, which contain a variety of jellyfish. A kreisel is a cornerless tank with circular water flow. Named after the German word for carousel, it's designed to keep the jellyfish in the center of the exhibit and away from the walls. In the wild, jellyfish spend most of their time in open water. Their soft bodies are easily injured by bumping into corners and solid objects, hence the special design. These animals are mesmerizing; you could stare at them for hours.

The aquarium was a lot of fun. It has made an incredible comeback after the disaster that befell it in the days after hurricane Katrina and the flood resulting from the failed Federal levee system, and it deserves all of the success it can have. In the aftermath of the storm, thousands of fish died, among them a 13-foot-long sawfish and a 250-pound goliath grouper, both on the endangered species list, along with nine sand tiger sharks, whose numbers have been dwindling because of commercial fishing. Temperatures rose to 140 degrees in the Rain Forest exhbit in the absence of air conditioning, killing many of the birds.

The aquarium survived the 140-mph winds of the hurricane and because of its location on the Mississippi River levee, it was not affected by the floodwaters that inundated the city a day later. With a diesel-fuel generator the size of a small moving truck, it even survived what should have been a short-lived power outage -- for a while.

Compared with the massive destruction and human death toll, this loss of aquatic life at the aquarium pales, without question. But it echoed a lesson taught over and over again in of the disaster: Life is fragile. "We loved these animals," said aquarium worker Tom Dyer. 

Here's the aquarium's story from August 2005. The aquarium had a team of volunteer "storm riders" in place to care for the animals in the facility, maintain the electrical and engineering systems, and guard the building in an emergency. They had everything they needed: plenty of water, boxes of military meals, and inflatable mattresses. They slept in a downstairs conference room, where a window provided views of the Mississippi River.

If anything in New Orleans could survive, this was it. The glass-and-concrete facility was built on relatively high ground just south of the French Quarter. The windows were designed to withstand 140-mph straight-line winds. The acrylic tanks, in some places, were nearly 1-foot thick.

Handling the arrival of Katrina on Aug. 28 went pretty much as planned. The storm riders switched off noncritical systems. They monitored the pumps and filters that take toxic ammonia out of the water and infuse it with oxygen. They maintained the systems that kept the water for the aquarium's sea otters chilled to a comfortable 60 degrees. They held off on feeding the fish in order to keep the water in their tanks clear. When the power blinked off in the early hours of Monday morning, the backup diesel generator kicked into gear just as planned.

However, the situation was much different outside the aquarium walls. New Orleans was beginning to disintegrate. The levees were breached. Floodwaters poured into the city, filling it like a tank. The convention center, a few blocks up river, turned into a nightmare of desperate city residents looking for help. 

Inside the aquarium, just a little bit of water had blown under the doors. The storm riders were as safe and sound as they could be, but in the end the aquarium was at the mercy of the same forces that overwhelmed the rest of New Orleans. By Tuesday, people were breaking into businesses, and what was left of the police force was unable to stop them. The staff began to worry about looters breaking in. They had to consider how to ration their four-day supply of fuel for the generator now that it looked like the emergency could last a lot longer.

Finally, on Wednesday, the storm riders were given the word that they had to evacuate. A half dozen police officers whose station had been flooded moved in. The storm riders showed them how to feed the otters and penguins and departed for Baton Rouge.

"We really didn't want to leave, but we didn't have much choice," said David Brandt, who cared for the penguins. "We didn't know when we'd get back in, what was going to happen."

They were gone four days. When a new team of staffers entered the aquarium on Sunday they found the generator, its air filter clogged, barely working. The filters for the fish tanks had long stopped functioning properly, leaving the water with too much ammonia and not enough oxygen. Most of the fish were dead. You can only imagine the smell. But there was no time to think about the dead. Those left alive needed tending. All 19 penguins survived. The sea otters survived too, as had the anaconda, white alligator, and 250-pound green sea turtle. The lacy-looking sea dragons, fragile creatures that can fail to thrive under the best of circumstances, somehow held on. 

A few wild sea turtles that were being cared for at the aquarium were released into the Gulf of Mexico early in the week. The birds that survived were transferred to the Houston Zoo for safekeeping. The sea dragons were transported in a climate-controlled truck to the Dallas World Aquarium. The big sea turtle, covered in wet towels, joined them for the journey, then was transferred to Moody Gardens Aquarium in Galveston, Texas

The otters and penguins were packed into large dog kennels and flown on a donated FedEx plane from Baton Rouge to California, to take up temporary residence at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

At a news conference on Friday, aquarium officials focused on rebuilding. They stood at a podium in front of a large tank containing eight tarpon that survived along with a Kemp's Ridley turtle and an alligator gar. But in more than a dozen tanks there was only murky, green water.

Everything is back to normal now, more than 10 years later, the fish and birds were replenished and the refugee creatures returned. But along with the needless human toll in New Orleans as a result of the levee failure, it is important to remember that there was a tremendous loss of other lives and property as well. This story ends on a good note. Many, many others did not.

After our aquarium experience, we exited into bright sunshine and very high humidity. We were ready for a snack, so we went to the new Cafe Envie that has opened on Decatur Street a couple of blocks off of Canal in the French Quarter near the House of Blues. We shared an espresso brownie and washed it down with iced Americanos.  

A few hours later, we headed back into the French Quarter for dinner at one of our favorites, GW Fins on Bienville Street about a half block up from Bourbon Street.

This place is just fantastic. It's our third year in a row going there (see Day 7 in 2014 and Day 1 last year), and in a city that is just full of exciting places to eat, the fact that we've done that really says something about it. The food, the wine, the atmosphere, and the service are all impeccable. 

We were seated in one of the booths that surround the main dining room. Our wines were Gascon Reserva Malbec for Laurie and Seghesio Zinfandel for me. All of the wines we have enjoyed at this restaurant are simply outstanding. 

Our appetizer was once again Fins' signature smoked sizzling oysters. It's very hard not to have this. A half dozen large oysters are cold smoked, then dipped in drawn butter. Meanwhile, the shells are heated to 500 degrees. The cold oysters are dropped into the hot shells and brought to the table semi-raw and sizzling, the liquor bubbling. It pretty much hits all of the senses at once. This video will at least cover sight and sound.

Both of our entrees were wood-fire grilled. Laurie had cobia, served on a bed of Thai mirliton slaw, served with blue crab fritters with pepper jelly and chili oil. Cobia, also known as lemon fish, is found in the Gulf. It can reach up to 150 pounds and resembles a small shark. It is caught by spearfishing, so it is impeccably fresh. It has white, sweet meat with a higher fat content and is firm and flavorful, perfect for the wood-fire grill. Because cobia is a richer fish, it goes well with leaner garnishes, thus the fresh slaw, made from a popular local squash called mirliton. The light, crisp slaw provides balance to the bold flavor of the grilled fish. The blue crab fritters (which look similar to a hush puppy) round out the dish in flavor and texture. If you’re looking to try a more flavorful fish, consider the lemon fish!

My entree was Louisiana mahi with a pineapple basil glaze, served with sweet potato hash, roasted corn butter, and crispy plantains. The creativity here along with the freshest of ingredients and knowledge of the seafood (for example, they clean the fish on a refrigerated table to keep it at its absolute freshest before cooking) are what keeps us coming back. The food is just incredible.

We shared a simple, yet perfectly done, crème brûlée for dessert along with coffee.

And that's it for the Daze Between! For me it's back to "work" tomorrow, that being Jazz Fest Day 4, and for Laurie, well, she ... is ... ready!

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© Jeff Mangold 2012