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Work of this artificial rock maker is for the birds

Endangered African penguins gather near the water at the Vancouver Aquarium. The exhibit opened May 18.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

During their five years operating Raincity Rock and Waterscapes, an artificial-rock construction company, partners Ryan Spong and Mark MacIsaac have developed naturalistic pools for some tough customers: a billionaire who owns a private island off B.C.'s coast and a Canadian rock star. But perhaps none was as demanding as the company's latest clients, seven African penguins that now call the Vancouver Aquarium home.

Mr. Spong and master carver Mr. MacIsaac were given the task of making the habitat resemble the geology of South Africa's Boulders Beach, the flightless birds' native place, while providing hidden rooms for sleep, first aid and water-filtration systems, plus safe access for staff.

For the two childhood friends who grew up in East Vancouver, their latest project is a return to their roots.

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"I remember coming to the aquarium as a little kid," Mr. Spong says in an interview next to the exhibit, which also has a rugged cliff side and stony beach. "I never appreciated what kind of work was behind all the displays."

With their work split between residential and commercial projects, the two seem to have found a niche that's rock solid. They helped to create the magnificent West Coast exhibit at Vancouver International Airport as well as a series of graded hot pools with cascading waterfalls at a private residence in Tofino, B.C., and water features for many of the city's developers.

In the same way that natural wonders draw tourists, artificial rock faces can lure customers, says Mr. Spong, noting that the use of naturalistic landscape is especially effective in selling high-end spec homes.

"Although the cost of a water feature is only a small portion of the total building cost, its uniqueness is so compelling that it becomes the mental focus of the property for the prospective buyer," he says.

And yet with artificial rock, whether it's surrounding a luxury home's infinity pool or a swimming hole for marine animals, the goal is to not be noticed.

"When you're emulating nature's beauty, you don't want it to stand out," Mr. Spong says. "If you notice it, we haven't done it right."

The penguin habitat at the aquarium, which cost $500,000, began with images of the South African beach and talks with the aquarium's designers and marine-animal experts as well as structural and mechanical engineers. From there, Mr. MacIsaac made a model out of clay. Once the design was refined and approved, Raincity excavated the former treed space, which had been used as a viewing area for nearby beluga and seal tanks.

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Mr. MacIsaac built the penguin area's underlying structure with rebar, mesh and wire. Then out came one of the tools of his trade: what looks like a firehose filled with "shotcrete," a type of cement that's especially thick and sticky. The substance is shot out using an air compressor, and before it dries, Mr. MacIsaac uses trowels to carve the kind of natural cracks and crevasses you'd find in real boulders.

To make sure the rock face matched the real thing, including its pockmarks, he summoned his inner Jackson Pollock and threw handfuls of wet sand on it. Finally, he painted it the colour of caramel.

The display had unique challenges. It had to meet space and water volume standards set out by international and Canadian associations of zoos and aquariums; it had to provide good sight lines from various angles for the millions of people who will visit over the next two years (the penguins are on loan from Boston's New England Aquarium); and it had to be accessible to aquarium staff. Plus, because penguins are prone to health problems in their feet, Mr. MacIsaac had to provide a varied, rugged surface area and ensure they wouldn't end up standing in puddles.

"We wanted it to be visually distinct from the other exhibits, as it sits right between our Canada's Arctic and Wild Coast exhibits," says the aquarium's director of design, Doug Munday. "A lot of people think penguins are up at the North Pole hanging out with the polar bears, when in fact they're native to the Southern hemisphere.

"We were very happy with the way this turned out. It's a neat combination of artistry, mechanics and practicality."

Mr. MacIsaac has been building artificial rockscapes for nearly two decades, having joined his uncle's company after high school. When his friend Mr. Spong returned to Vancouver in 2004 after completing his MBA at the University of Toronto and working in the finance industry in London and New York, the two decided to go it alone. Today they employ anywhere from six to 30 people, depending on the project.

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The penguin habitat isn't the only exhibit Raincity Rock has built at the Vancouver Aquarium. It also created the rock features in several fish tanks, the spooky bat cave, the mischievous marmosets' space, insectariums for tarantulas and giant cockroaches, and the anacondas' enclosure. One of the most technical tanks to operate and maintain, the giant snakes' abode mimics the muddy banks of the Amazon River, complete with artificial mangrove vines. Access to the tank is accomplished through a concrete staircase disguised in the roots and tree trunks.

"It's a lot of fun working on these projects," Mr. MacIsaac says. "It's definitely an interesting career."

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