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News / Northwest

95 new species coming to revamped Tacoma aquarium

After yearslong closure, exhibit has new look and name

By Simone Carter, The News Tribune (Tacoma(TNS)
Published: June 12, 2024, 8:17pm

TACOMA—One of Point Defiance Zoo’s two aquariums has been closed for renovations for more than two years. On Friday it will reopen with a fresh look and new name: the Tropical Reef Aquarium.

Formerly called the South Pacific Aquarium, the 15,000-square-foot display boasts colorful fish additions and several species of sharks, according to a zoo news release. A beach and coral-reef environment grace the space, as do outer-reef and lagoon habitats.

This week, zoo members were allowed to preview the new digs ahead of Friday’s reopening.

Lakewood resident Char Herrick told The News Tribune during a sneak-peek Monday that her young children, Dalia and Cedar, are fascinated by marine life. She enjoyed how tropical the space looks and how relaxing it feels.

“Seeing how excited they are when they come in here is refreshing and nice,” Herrick said of her kids.

The 29-acre Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, 5400 N. Pearl St., temporarily shuttered its South Pacific Aquarium in November 2021 for repairs.

The project’s price tag was $7.09 million, zoo spokesperson Tessa Miller noted via email. Roughly half of that, $3.52 million, came from 2014 Tacoma voter-approved bonds while the zoo’s operating funds covered $3.22 million. Community donations through The Zoo Society added another $350,000.

Miller said 127 species call the Tropical Reef Aquarium home — some of which “live behind the scenes.” Ninety-five of these species are new.

‘Immersive experience’

Sarah Oliver, the zoo’s deputy director, told The News Tribune she is excited about the aquarium’s reopening.

“It’s really beautiful,” she said Monday afternoon. “I think that it’s a truly immersive experience: You go inside and it feels like you’re taking a little mini-vacation to a tropical reef, and I love sharing that with everyone.”

The Tropical Reef Aquarium first opened in 1989. It is benefiting from repairs to the roof, walkways and care and feeding areas, according to the zoo’s website. The space also required a new ventilator, heat pump, industrial dehumidifier, improvements to animal life-support systems and electrical updates.

There is more work to be done even after Friday’s reopening. A new up-close, coral-reef habitat will open this fall. The improved Eye-to-Eye Shark Dives program will return later in the summer, allowing people to watch the creatures swim from a revamped diving space.

Sea-life portraits by local artist Mindy Barker hang in the entry atrium and depict some of the aquarium’s most iconic animals, such as a striped clownfish and spotted zebra shark. Oliver noted that high up in the aquarium, clouds made of sound-dampening material help to bring the noise down a few notches.

Long process

Several shark species swim in the aquarium’s “Outer Reef,” including nurse, whitetip reef, blacktip reef, gray reef and zebra sharks. Another fin-favorite: a potato grouper dubbed “Tater,” whose frowning face prompted one child on Monday to remark that the fish looked grumpy.

Attendees can interact with certain animals in the “Tropical Shallows” habitat, according to the zoo. Crabs, snails, sea stars, shrimp and urchins can be gently touched.

Oliver said that helps zoo-goers build a sense of empathy: “We want to preserve nature, not only because it’s beautiful, but because we’re part of it — and they’re a part of us.”

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It was a long wait for the aquarium to reopen, but Oliver believes that folks’ patience will pay off.

“We feel like it was really worth it in all of the improvements we were able to make,” she said, “and believing that this sets us up to have this really amazing resource for hopefully another 30 years into the future.”

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