Since opening in 1996, our million-gallon Outer Bay exhibit has been home five white sharks, speedy 600-pound tunas, green sea turtles, and an ocean sunfish that grew so large it had to be lifted out with a helicopter and released into the bay. The 54-foot-long exhibit has also been a perennial visitor favorite.
So why tamper with a good thing?
The short answer: time has taken its toll. Since August 2010, we’ve been busy rebuilding, adding new filtration and pumps, and refurbishing the entire wing to make a better environment for our animals and a better experience for you. The new Open Sea wing opened July 2, which means you can see your old favorite animals—plus a few new species like puffins.
The walls or “eggshell” that forms the interior of the tank was originally covered with thousands of small, half-inch blue tiles grouted to fiberglass, to give the impression of an infinite ocean. But no one anticipated the enormous currents that would be generated by tunas reaching speeds of 18 mph. “It took a while for the tuna to get big enough to create problems,” says Marty Manson, project director. “I’m not sure anyone ever thought we would have 600-pound fish!”
Before long, the walls began to flex and the tiles started to come unglued—a few at first, and then many more.
But the real problem began when naturally inquisitive sea turtles began to ingest the tiles and had to be taken off exhibit for their own safety. (Those turtles “passed” the tiles and are thriving behind the scenes today, awaiting their return to the new, refurbished exhibit in July.)
Labor of Love
Work on the “life support systems,” housed in a labyrinth of passageways deep underground, actually started in 2009. New filters, pumps and other equipment were all added. The tank was then drained, and the windows were polished to improve the view.
Then, in fall 2010, structural work started in earnest. The “skin” was removed from the fiberglass ribs. New 10-foot eggshell sections were then installed using “swing stages:” worker platforms suspended by cables. A new blue gel coat was applied, and water was added.
But there was a problem. “The color just wasn’t right, and it showed underwater,” says Marty. “The only way to make it right was to grind the whole thing down and start over.” This time, for better access, workers used small floating rafts instead of swing stages. They started at the bottom, and simply added water to the enormous tank each week, floating and painting their way to the top until the project was complete.
Fortunately, this time, the color was exactly right!
Some Benefits You’ll Never See
One year and $20 million later, what are the main benefits of the massive renovation? The biggest, by far, is the return of our majestic green sea turtles, among other animals.
But for our husbandry staff, there’s much more. “We put a lot of energy into things people won’t see,” says Manny Ezcurra, associate curator of elasmobranches, “things like life support systems, filtration and water treatment.” Water supplies to ancillary exhibits, like the jellies and sardine roundabout, will be on separate systems, enabling staff to fine tune the water temperature for each gallery. The passageway to a holding tank has also been improved, easing animal medical exams and transport.
And of course, the whole structure is stronger, preventing the kinds of problems that caused all this trouble in the first place.
“I don’t ever expect that tank to be empty again,” says Marty. “At least, not on my watch!”