On Friday, September 7, 2018, the long-awaited Pacific Seas Aquarium at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium opens to the public, bringing with it a new era for the zoo as it replaces the 55-year-old North Pacific Aquarium, which was entirely focused on cold-water species native to the Puget Sound and oceans off of Washington, Oregon and Alaska. While the North Pacific Aquarium remained popular until it closed to the public earlier in 2018, the building had seen better days and the animal life-support systems had become outdated.
In contrast, the Pacific Seas Aquarium will bring a shiny, new, 35,000-gallon, state-of-the-art aquarium to Tacoma – the building and its systems are energy efficient and equipped with power- and water-saving technology. And while you won’t necessarily know about most of the technology as it’s behind the scenes, take a moment to notice that the toilets flush courtesy of rainwater collected by the zoo.
The Pacific Seas Aquarium is about 20 percent larger than the old aquarium, and was designed by EHDD, which is the architectural firm that created the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
So what’s all the hype about? What will you see? The answer is that you’ll find sea critters both old and new.
“We have three exciting and engaging new species – green sea turtles, scalloped hammerhead sharks and spotted eagle rays in the Pacific Seas Aquarium,” says Kris Sherman, a spokesperson for the zoo. “Not only are they new to Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, the Pacific Seas Aquarium is the only place in the Northwest where you can see them. We think our guests will instantly connect with the sea turtles through their expressive eyes and fluid swimming, be awed by the interesting appearance and power of the hammerhead sharks and be wowed by the spotted eagle rays as they “fly” through the water, their pectoral fins gently flapping up and down as the wings that propel them.”
The new aquarium is also home to one of only two free-standing jelly globes in the entire U.S., and has interactive kiosks throughout where guests can learn more about the animals they’re seeing. Beyond sea turtles and hammerheads, visitors will also see jellies, a giant Pacific octopus, small animals in the Tidal Touch Zone, and hundreds of cold-water species in the Northwest Waters exhibit (who may look familiar to fans of the old aquarium, but it’s good to see old friends too).
The highlight is the 280,000-gallon Baja Bay habitat, which will showcase the hammerheads, sea turtles, colorful subtropical fish and spotted eagle rays. The animals within are pretty amazing, but so is the design, which allows guests to get “nose-to-glass views.”
“I am most excited to see…our two sea turtles, Sunny and Azul,” says Sherman. “I love their expressive eyes, the way they swim and the fact that they are truly beautiful as you see them make moves that are worthy of a ballet in the water.”
The Pacific Seas Aquarium is the largest capital project in the zoo’s entire 113-year history and a single facet of the larger Destination Point Defiance initiative, which is upping the ante on the already lovely Point Defiance Park. Funds for the improvements came from bonds Tacoma voters passed in 2014, as well as money raised by The Zoo Society, donors and grants.
And while the aquarium will be mostly done when it opens on September 7, creating an all-new aquarium is a large undertaking so some finishing touches will still be in process. Repeat visitors will likely notice new fish being added to the aquarium throughout the rest of the year.
And if you’re a long-time zoo visitor who will miss the old North Pacific Aquarium, never fear. The building will be repurposed at some point, but plans are still up in the air as to exactly how. Sherman states that the zoo’s long-range plans call for a South American rain forest exhibit in the building, but there is no funding at the moment to start on that.
“We want our visitors to have fun, and we know they will,” says Sherman. “But we also hope they will walk away reflecting on the animals they’ve seen and thinking about simple, individual acts they can take to help our ocean and the animals that live there. That can be as simple as saying no to plastic straws; using reusable bags; choosing sustainable seafood and taking other actions to help keep our ocean healthy.”
For more information, visit Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium’s website.