IT’S A YEAR-ROUND ATTRACTION
Beyond the Elephant Expedition and Helzberg Penguin Plaza, the most transformative and large-scale exhibit in the Kansas City Zoo’s 114-year history has officially opened to the public.
The new 650,000-gallon Sobela Ocean Aquarium features a marine ecosystem teeming with life in a variety of zones, from warm coastlines and warm shallows to cold coastlines and open oceans.
At the center of the guest experience is a 362,262-gallon super aquarium featuring a thriving underwater community of fish and coral reefs coexisting in a saltwater habitat. The warm reef showcases a rich marine biodiversity of coral reefs, plants, and animals, where visitors of all ages get to mingle with tropical fish and learn all about their unique characteristics.
Like all of the Kansas City Zoo’s exhibits, the Sobela Ocean Aquarium encourages visitors to develop an understanding of nature and fosters an environment of awareness where people can connect with plants and animals.
“Today has been more than 10 years in the making,” explained Sean Putney, executive director and CEO of the Kansas City Zoo & Aquarium, last week. “We are excited to bring this new experience to those in Kansas City, as there are people here who have never been and may never go to the ocean. We now have the ability to talk with them and discuss why the oceans are important, how we have a connection to them, and, hopefully encourage them to support aquatic life and the realms in which they live.”
An interactive tide touch pool with 80-degree water abounding with sea life beckons people to connect with starfish, snails, and hermit crabs. On the opposite side of the aquarium, sea stars, urchins, and anemones can be seen and touched in a 490-gallon pool filled with 55-degree water.
The cold coastline touch pool serves as a starch comparison to the temperature of the lagoon touch pool. This variation sparks the question: Why does ocean water have such varying temperatures?
“I think a lot of kids here in Kansas City have no idea that the oceans are different. They think it is all connected so why wouldn’t it be the same? The temperature varies, the salinity varies, the chemical makeup varies, and the currents all vary. So, these interactive pools start this conversation,” said Putney.
Surrounded by mangrove forests, tanks of fish, and tropical lagoons, the aquarium is a unique immersive experience that provides visitors with the sights, smells, touch, and sounds of the ocean and its diverse marine life. An array of fish, from tropical fish and jellyfish to sharks and eels, can be viewed year-round.
The cold coastline zone ignites a place of exploration and discovery about sea otters, which are on loan from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife. The effects of a changing climate, fur trade, oil spills, and shark bites have taken a toll on the sea otter population. The zoo plans to connect with vital workers at rescue centers to provide a home for sea otters when returning the otter to the wild isn’t an option. Sea otters have been listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act since 1977.
Putney stated, “The sea otters were washed ashore and once this occurs the question becomes: Is it possible to rehab them to the point where they can return to the wild? If the answer is no, then they either come to a facility like ours or they get euthanized. I personally feel like what a great story for Kansas Citians to hear that they are here representing their species as ambassadors and people can fall in love with them.”
Sea otters are not the only endangered species guests will see swimming around. Just off the main entrance, a convalescing sea turtle, named Tortellini, greets visitors. All seven species of sea turtles are classified as endangered and several of those species are critically endangered.
“Tortellini was hit by a boat, and you can see the damage on her shell. The damage to her shell isn’t the biggest concern, it’s the nerve damage that creates a slower passage of food through her intestines and that causes her rear end to float. Out in the wild, she wouldn’t be able to survive and here in the aquarium, we will be able to put a backpack on her which will help compensate for her buoyancy issue,” said Putney.
While the aquarium attraction and its 8,000 animals are a form of entertainment, it’s clear there is a cross-focus on education and safeguarding aquatic species in the oceans. It is well recognized when exploring zoos and aquariums people gain knowledge and understanding, prompting visitors to reconsider their role in the environment and contribution to protecting it. The Kansas City Zoo & Aquarium says it is poised to engage in full-spectrum conservation strategies and projects, including supporting conservation initiatives for endangered species of corals found along the coast of the U.S. and in the Caribbean.
Behind the scenes
Meanwhile, it takes quite a production to operate an aquarium of this scale. And what visitors don’t get to see is the massive behind-the-scenes operation. There are more than five miles of pipes keeping the animals safe with a state-of-the-art water filtration system.
“What most people don’t understand is that what they see on the level they come in through to look at the animals is only about one-fourth of the entire building. Downstairs in the basement is where all the aquarium’s water-making happens and water storage. Our staff is really based down there most of the time,” said Putney.
“It’s also where our water quality lab and food preparation occur. The floor above the main level is where our staff can access a lot of our bigger tanks for feeding the fish, removing algae, or scuba diving,” he added.
The fourth floor is where a special filtration system is located. Zoo officials decided early on in the project that they were going to implement a filtration system that would help the zoo achieve a greener lifestyle. Drum filters are used in place of sand filters, which helps them use about 60 percent less energy.
The site where the aquarium now resides had been unavailable to the public for more than a decade. The dilapidated concrete and steel enclosures were partitioned off from zoo onlookers. Now, the aquarium overlooks the $10 million expansion to the elephant exhibit.
A public-private partnership provided the original impetus for the $77-million investment for the sea-themed exhibit. In 2011, voters in Jackson and Clay approved the formation of a Zoological District and a one-eighth cent sales tax, which served as a catalyst to support the construction of the facility. This dedicated funding stream provided $40 million and generous donors funded the remaining $37 million.
“We have hit the construction number that we needed to have and now we are trying to build upon a contingency that allows us to have the funding necessary to take care of emergency situations that may arise down the road,” said Putney.