South Sound News

The stars are ready for their close-ups as Tacoma's new aquarium opens

Staff members watch the sea creatures in the Baja Bay exhibit at the new Pacific Seas Aquarium at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium. Peter Haley/The News Tribune

TACOMA, Wash. — The sea creatures have learned to get along, the water is a balmy 77 degrees and all that’s missing from the new Pacific Seas Aquarium are the visitors.

That will change Friday (Sept. 7) when Tacoma’s Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium opens the doors to its new $51.6 million project. It’s been four years of planning and building to bring to life the 35,000-square-foot aquarium, the largest capital project in the zoo’s 113-year history.

“We really hit a home run here,” deputy director John Houck said. “The aquarium exceeds the wildest expectations people might have.”

Glimpses of green sea turtles, hammerhead sharks and eagle rays gliding through a large tank greet guests when they first walk in the door.

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Before they reach the main exhibit they’re taken on an ocean journey past jellyfish, a giant Pacific octopus, schools of tropical fish, kelp forests and touch tanks filled with starfish.

Baja Bay is a 280,000-gallon tank that stretches 10 feet above the heads of visitors, making them feel as if they’re standing in a tunnel of water. It’s meant to imitate sea life in the gulf waters between Baja, California, and Mexico.

“I think the sea turtles are going to steal the show,” said staff biologist Melissa Bishop, who worked with sea turtle brothers Azul and Sunny in Monterey before they came to Tacoma.

She stooped to drop a squid stuffed with vitamins and calcium to one of the turtles as another trainer fed the other turtle lettuce and strips of bell pepper.

Staff biologists feed many of the sea creatures by hand, though on occasion a cannon will shoot a stream of minced clam into the tank.

Azul and Sunny are 15, which is fairly young in sea turtle years. Most live to be 80.

They share the saltwater tank with four scalloped hammerhead sharks, five eagle rays and nearly 400 soldierfish and blue line snappers.

More creatures will be added to the aquarium in the coming months, curator Neil Allen said.

Some exhibits from the North Pacific Aquarium, which is now closed, will live on. People can still see Jammin’ with Jellies, Puget Sound native species and take a look at sea life under the Tacoma Narrows bridges.

At the aquarium’s exit are digital touch screens where visitors can pledge to make changes, such as not using plastic straws.

“It’s all about recognizing the connection we have with the ocean,” said Alan Varsik, director of Zoological and Environmental Education for Metro Parks Tacoma. “After you form all these new friendships, we want people to leave knowing how they can take action.”

Though many of the sea animals were moved from the North Pacific Aquarium, the new aquarium is more than a replacement for it, officials said.

After 55 years of use, the North Pacific Aquarium was deteriorating, the animal life-support systems were outdated and most of the species represented were native to Washington waters.

Now, Pacific Seas offers up-close views of creatures from an array of areas and boasts the most sophisticated technology of any aquarium in the world.

It’s energy-efficient with LED lights throughout, toilets flush with rainwater collected on site and all the water used in the aquarium is pumped from Puget Sound.

A series of pumps and valves bring in water from Commencement Bay, filters the water and controls the temperature before it’s routed into the exhibit tanks. Tank temperatures range from 48 to 77 degrees.

An automated system ensures the tanks stay topped off and collects runoff, cleaning the water before it’s returned to the bay.

“Every drop of water we take in gets put back to the Sound cleaner,” said Doug Immerman, an animal life support and water quality specialist.

The aquarium was largely paid for with a $198 million Metro Parks Tacoma bond measure approved in 2014. The Zoo Society and various donors also contributed.

A facility was the top priority in the zoo’s 10-year strategic plan laid out in 2011.

Money to redo the North Pacific Aquarium has not been raised. Officials have said they envision a South American Rain Forest exhibit there.

The zoo’s South Pacific Aquarium, home to 16 large sharks, the popular Eye-to-Eye Shark Dive program, Stingray Cove and dozens of colorful tropical fish remains open.

By The Numbers:
35,000 - Square feet of the new building.

700 - Number of workers needed to build the aquarium.

205,000 - Number of worker hours on the job.

280,000 - Gallons of water in the largest exhibit (equivalent to 15 backyard swimming pools.)

10,000 - Length of pipe in the animal life support systems (equivalent to the length of 33 football fields.)

225 - Pieces of life-support systems equipment.

51.6 - How many millions of dollars it cost to complete the project.