New design for Point Defiance aquarium revealed to public

Scalloped hammerhead sharks, green sea turtles and other aquatic life are planned for a warm-water exhibit showcasing animals that can be found along the Gulf of California between the Baja Peninsula and the mainland of Mexico.
Scalloped hammerhead sharks, green sea turtles and other aquatic life are planned for a warm-water exhibit showcasing animals that can be found along the Gulf of California between the Baja Peninsula and the mainland of Mexico. Courtesy

Imagine standing in a tunnel of water with hammerhead sharks swimming above your head and sea turtles gliding in front of you.

That’s the experience officials at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium are aiming for as they design a three-story aquarium to in part replace the North Pacific Aquarium.

“It’s not just replacing the aquarium,” said Gary Geddes, director of zoological and environmental education. “It expands the collection so we can talk in a broader way about ocean conservation.”

Construction is expected to begin next summer, and the aquarium could open by 2018.

For now, zoo officials want to brief the public on its design plans and get feedback at two meetings Monday and Wedneday.

The 34,000-square-foot building will be built between the Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater and the Rocky Shores exhibit.

A new facility was the top priority listed in the zoo’s 10-year strategic plan, which was laid out in 2011.

Money for the aquarium, estimated to cost $48.5 million, is largely being paid for with a $198 million Metro Parks Tacoma bond measure approved last year.

The aquarium will host many of the same exhibits from the North Pacific Aquarium, including the Puget Sound native species and Jammin’ with Jellies.

It also will be home to at least three new exhibits and a 250,000-gallon tank where visitors can get close to scalloped hammerhead sharks and green sea turtles.

Both will be new species for Point Defiance.

Click to enlarge:

The sea turtles likely will be acquired from facilities caring for injured creatures that cannot be released back into the wild.

The hammerhead sharks would come from a sustainable fishery in Hawaii, and staff biologists will grow them behind the scenes for 18 months before placing them in the main tank, said the aquarium’s deputy director, John Houck.

The warm-water tank is meant to imitate sea life in the gulf waters between Baja, California, and Mexico.

Designers have sketched it to be 25 feet deep, stretch 10 feet above the heads of guests and have a 10-foot-deep area that gives the impression of being in a tunnel of water.

Some of the new exhibits will be a 75,000-gallon Puget Sound community tank and a kelp forest within a 11,000-gallon tank that offers a view generally seen only by scuba divers.

The Marine Discovery Center will expand with touch tanks of all sizes and heights to accommodate guests old and young.

The lower-level will have a classroom where program participants can study marine ecosystems and walk a short distance from the building to Puget Sound to collect water samples.

Officials also hope to include exhibits to depict the area beneath the Tacoma Narrows bridges, including a replica of Galloping Gertie debris, and a tank to teach visitors about the schooling habits of fish.

An octopus and Japanese spider crabs will make appearances as well.

“We really hope visitors will experience and learn how the wonders of the ocean can fuel our hearts and minds and enhance our sense of responsibility to become stewards of the ocean,” said Karen Povey, education curator.

Povey said her team is still developing the specific messages the aquarium will focus on, but overfishing is one of them.

Officials are also creating interactive experiences, such as a real-time social media gallery, so people can show their personal connections to the ocean and become part of the aquarium’s story.

As the aquarium’s message expands, so does its footprint.

The new building will be 12,000 square feet larger than Point Defiance’s current North Pacific Aquarium. The window of the main display tank will be 32 feet long, offering plenty of space for visitors to press their face against the glass and stare.

The South Pacific Aquarium, which houses Stingray Cove and a shark exhibit where guests can participate in a paid dive, will not move.

Aquarium officials said the new building is the largest project they’ve worked on, and for the first time they’re using a process that includes the contractor in the design development phase.

“This is so you have a reality check early on,” Geddes said. “Not just ‘these are pretty pictures’ but ‘it’s buildable.’ 

Artist renderings show the building’s exterior could be a blend of wood and walls that looks like scales to represent the forest and Puget Sound in Point Defiance Park.

Doing the work is EHDD, a San Francisco-based architecture firm that has worked on similar projects, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago and the recently remodeled Toledo Aquarium in Ohio.

The North Pacific Aquarium, which opened in 1963, is the oldest building on zoo grounds and has been showing signs of deterioration for years.

Saltwater has caused corrosion in the concrete, and experts have said that although the facility isn’t dangerous yet, the zoo might have to vacate the building by 2018.

The North Pacific Aquarium will feature a South American Rain Forest after its tank is drained and cleaned and the marine animals have been moved to their new home.

That project is not yet funded.

Stacia Glenn: 253-597-8653



Two public meetings will be held this week so people can see the proposed design for the new aquarium at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium and offer feedback.

When: 5 to 6 p.m. Monday.

Where: Metro Parks Tacoma headquarters, 4702 S. 19th St., Tacoma.

What: The Board of Park Commissioners will hold a public review and study session on the project. Residents can view the drawings during an open house at 5 p.m. The study session will begin at 5:30 p.m., and a public comment period will start about 6 p.m.

When: 6:30 to 8 p.m. Wednesday.

Where: Point Defiance Zoo’s North Pacific Aquarium, 5400 N. Pearl St., Tacoma.

What: Officials from the zoo and EHDD, the San Francisco-based architectural firm that designed the new aquarium, will speak about the project and answer questions about the aquarium’s construction and timeline.


Other projects happening at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium thanks to the 2014 bond:

Rocky Shores exhibit renovation

Construction on the sea lion exhibit, which will eventually include California sea lions, begins in January. It is scheduled to be complete by summer 2016. Next fall, upgrades will be done on the walrus exhibit. That work is slated to finish in summer 2017.

Polar bear exhibit renovation and expansion

Construction will start in summer 2018 and conclude in summer 2019.