Tacoma residents invited to say their goodbyes to beloved aquarium

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The Marine Discovery Center at the North Pacific Aquarium was a huge hit for children and adults, enabling them to touch and feel sea stars, urchins and other sea life. Photo courtesy of Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium

Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium’s North Pacific Aquarium is closing at 4 p.m. on Friday, March 30 to make preparations for the new Pacific Seas Aquarium opening later this summer, but not before thousands are welcome March 24 and March 25 to share their memories of this once-innovative, 55-year-old circular structure that helped link Tacoma residents to the sea creatures of the Puget Sound and the northern Pacific Ocean.

Inside the NPA on March 24 and March 25, guests will have the opportunity to write down their memories on water bubble-shaped sticky-notes on the upper level from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

“We know that this will resonate with people,” said Kris Sherman, spokeswoman for the zoo and aquarium. “There have been hundreds of company parties and weddings over the years. Millions have taken iconic pictures. So, we know that there are a lot of memories that people will write. We will have staff members be able to read those memories and share them. We will have a historical video playing on a loop.”

Programs during the two-day special event will include an octopus-enrichment in the lower NPA aquarium at 2 p.m. on March 24; a shark feed at 11 a.m. and a lagoon feed at 11 a.m., on Saturday and Sunday, respectively, in the adjoining South Pacific Aquarium; an appearance by Siesta, the zoo’s two-toed sloth, at 1 p.m. both March 24 and March 25 in the NPA; and from 11 a.m.-3 p.m. on March 24 and March 25 discover sea stars, urchins, and more in the Marine Discovery Center on the upper level of the NPA.

Zoo and aquarium officials want the public to know that the adjoining South Pacific Aquarium – home to 16 sharks, stingrays, and tropical fish – will remain open.

This historic photo of the North Pacific Aquarium is circa 1960. In its 55-year history, the aquarium entertained and educated tens of millions of visitors. Photo courtesy of Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium

The NPA opened at the zoo and aquarium on June 23, 1963. John Houck, deputy director of the zoo and aquarium, said the tank at the center of the building and the jewel tanks along the outside on the lower level made for a unique design at that time and a fun and wonderful experience for guests.

“(At the time it opened) I was a 13-year-old boy living in Portland,” Houck said. “Had I known it was opening in Tacoma I would have come to see it. From everything I see in the earlier pictures, I would have loved that place.”

Houck, who has been with the zoo and aquarium for 31 years, said he has witnessed a lot of change over the years in the building.

“It’s bittersweet that it’s at the end of its lifespan,” he said. “It’s been a wonderful experience for everyone who has seen it.”

Houck said the NPA houses aquatic species that are found only right here in the Puget Sound.

“Unless you’re a scuba diver, it’s hard to see what’s living in your own backyard,” he said. “(The NPA) exposed people to the beauty and wonder of the natural world right here in the Puget Sound. It also delivered education on the challenges related to pollution and the environmental issues related to the Puget Sound. It is important to us that the NPA concept lives on and that is why the new aquarium is being built so we can continue to share stories about Puget Sound right here in our own backyard.”

The new aquarium will be approximately 20 percent larger than the NPA. It is designed with the visitor experience front and center, featuring galleries that bring guests close to the animals and spotlights the importance of protecting the world’s oceans.

In the new aquarium, guests will continue to experience the Puget Sound and northern Pacific Ocean sea creatures, but also have the unique experience of witnessing sea creatures living in warmer waters. Three species new to the zoo and aquarium will be featured in the new Baja Bay exhibit: green sea turtles, scalloped hammerhead sharks, spotted eagle rays, and other tropical fish. The main animal habitats, Northwest Waters and Baja Bay, will hold a combined 350,000 gallons of water. The new aquarium will also feature the Tidal Touch Zone, three-to-four times larger than the original Marine Discovery Center at the NPA.

The new aquarium will be located between Wild Wonders Theater and Rocky Shores. It will open sometime this summer.

“It is the most complex project we have ever done, and we want to do everything right,” Houck said. “One of the biggest parts of opening a new aquarium is dialing in all the life-support systems that are very complicated. We need to get that right before we decide to open.”

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