Age of aquariums: Nat Geo reality show examines lifestyles of the fish and famous in South Florida

May 04, 2012 | By Ben Crandell, Sun Sentinel

The Miami Heat on another quest for a title? Yes, Heat star-turned-front office executive Alonzo Mourning is a little stressed.
Miami Marlins in last place? Team president David Samson could definitely use a massage.

Indianapolis 500 just weeks away? Fort Lauderdale race-car driver Ryan Hunter-Reay is certainly getting amped up.

It’s times like these when all three find their way in front of an aquarium.

“Sometimes I’ll just lay down in the family room staring at the fish tank. It’s very therapeutic, very relaxing,” Mourning said.

But a brilliant 300-gallon aquarium like the one Mourning has in his Coral Gables home can have the opposite effect on Mat Roy, president of Living Color Enterprises, a high-end Fort Lauderdale aquarium design firm. And that’s where you’ll find the fun of “Fish Tank Kings,” a reality show debuting 10 p.m. Saturday, May 12 on the Nat Geo Wild channel.

“Fish Tank Kings” follows the uncompromising Roy and his team Francis Yupangco, head marine biologist; Ben Alia, senior project manager; Jose Blanco, production and safety manager; and John Manning, life-support system designer as they create lavish aquariums to suit the challenging whims of a demanding clientele, a list that includes actors, musicians and athletes. In the pressure-packed opening episode, the team that put a 40,000-gallon shark tank in the lobby of the Gansevoort Miami Beach hotel is presented with an even more high-profile job: installing the famous aquariums into the backstop at the new Marlins Park.

If Roy is the straw that stirs the drink at Living Color, the demanding Samson is the ice crusher. Shake these two together on a job spiked with national scrutiny and … Must-see TV, anyone?

“I was very hard on them,” Samson admits, a statement Roy does not disagree with. “Sure, we got into it,” Roy says.

Samson’s wild pitch

Samson said it was he and team owner Jeffrey Loria who hatched the daring plan to add live fish to the Marlins’ on-field experience. For Samson it was a natural: He’s been enamored of fish since a well-placed ping-pong ball allowed him to bring a goldfish he named Herman home from a Milwaukee festival as a 6-year-old. He has a 250-gallon live reef aquarium filled with clownfish and sunfish in the Plantation home he shares with his wife and three kids.

“I’m very happy being around fish,” he said.

The Marlins Park aquariums were the most dramatic components of their plan to offer fans a stadium that was a stark departure from red-brick, old-school ballparks, one that reflected Miami as a youthful, colorful, forward-thinking city, Samson said.

“Certain things in baseball never change, as it should be. The bases, the plate, the pitcher’s mound. But some things can change, they’ve just never been changed,” he said. “Like the backstop.”

There were plenty of skeptics in Major League Baseball and the players’ union, both of which had to approve the project, Samson said. The national media and the South Florida public also had opinions.

Samson admits he was not easy to work for from the moment Living Color won the bid. There were challenges that were obvious could the tanks withstand being struck by a Josh Johnson fastball? and less so. Among the union’s concerns was the possibility that a player could lose sight of the ball in the glare of sunlight reflecting off the tanks.

“There was no middle ground on this project,” Samson said. “I told [Roy] this will be your greatest success or your greatest failure! We could not have fish flopping around the infield.”

Sometimes the frustrations could be measured in millimeters. The day that the tanks were finally slid into place after more than two years of planning, “one of them didn’t fit,” Roy says, stoically. But definitely good TV, he admits.

Samson and Roy were standing next to Marlins first baseman Gaby Sanchez for the aquariums’ big test, when Sanchez fired a ball at the side of the twin 450-gallon tanks. Samson said the empty tanks were undisturbed by a throw he said was measured at 85 mph.

Roy, a 45-year-old Taravella High grad, got into creating aquariums more than 20 years ago, segueing from fabricating jobs using the acrylic that Living Color now employs on its aquariums. He calls the company’s acrylic recipe “proprietary” information.

“You could throw a ball 200 mph and the tank would hold up,” he said.

Good thing. Roy values the tanks and fish they are gradually being stocked to reach their 50-fish limit, with some porkfish and a few “decent-size queen angels” next on the way at about $375,000.

A fine bromance?

Roy is anxious to see the final version of “Fish Tank Kings” the public is welcome to the watch party at Stout Bar & Grill (3419 N. Andrews Ave., Oakland Park) on Saturday, May 12 and he’s certain the footage that was shot over his shoulder during the course of five months has been edited to “heighten the drama.”

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