Point Defiance’s new aquarium makes waves

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Four years of planning and two years of construction end this week with the opening of Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium’s $51 million Pacific Seas Aquarium.

The anchor feature of the facility is the “Baja Bay,” a 280,000-gallon aquarium that offers various bay windows to view the tropical fish, sharks and other sea creatures, and a 32-foot long arch that allows spectators to see sharks, turtles, rays and fish from a perspective of a submarine sitting on the floor of the Pacific Ocean.

The whole aquarium experience starts before visitors even enter the doors, courtesy of a tidal pool along the entrance wall that displays waves lapping against the rocks and sands of a shoreline.

“Before you enter the aquarium, you feel like you are at the ocean,” PDZA spokeswoman Kris Sherman said during a tour for zoo members earlier this week.

Standout animals to see are the 15-year-old sea turtle brothers Sunny and Azul, as well as the spotted eagle rays. But the octopuses, of course, are generally the most interactive with the air breathers on the other side of the glass.

“They can see us just like we can see them,” Senior Biologist Marc Duncan said. “People don’t really think about that much.”

Much of Duncan’s work is to not only make sure the sea creatures are safe and healthy, but also entertained with food puzzles and jars they must open to get to the treats inside.

“They like to have changes to their environment,” he said.

Those changes come through alterations in the wave patterns around the aquarium and through theater-quality lighting that can mimic the passage of the day from sunrise to sunset and back again while also simulating storms or even the astronomical calendar with shorter “days” in the winter, which could encourage spawning season for some of the animals.

“We are learning how to utilize those systems,” Duncan said, likening the changes at the aquarium to tinkering with designs and colors after moving into a new house.  Exhibits much change the color of the sand or plants or lighting during the coming months to best fit the new residents.

“Every time you come, you will see something different,” Sherman said.

Of course, not all the new residents have moved into the aquarium yet. That will actually take several months as creatures clear their health checks after quarantine and successfully transition from frozen food to a fresher menu.

The “Jelly Gallery” offers five displays of all things jellyfish, including a touchable sphere filled with jellyfish that constantly bubbles cold water over its sides to wash away fingerprints and provide children young and old with a tactile experience. The feature’s dramatic lighting makes it one of the most selfie-friendly features of the exhibit.

The 100,000-gallon “Northwest Waters” habitat offers barnacle-encrusted pilings and 400 brightly colored sea anemones native to Puget Sound. The “Tide Touch Zone” lets visitors plunge their hands into viewing tanks to touch bumpy sea stars, prickly sea urchins, slick-shelled crabs and squishy sea cucumbers.

The building was designed by San Francisco-based EHDD, an architectural firm known for designing world-class aquatic attractions including the Monterey Bay Aquarium. The new aquarium is the largest capital project in Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium’s 113-year history and about 20 percent larger than the 55-year-old North Pacific Aquarium. That facility is now being used for “fish storage,” as sea animals transition into the new facility. There are no solid plans for how the old aquarium will be used once all the animals are moved over later this year. One long-range plan – one that is not funded – is that the site could be home for a South American rainforest exhibit.

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