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By Greg Aragon
I’ve signed my name on all kinds’ forms and documents over the years, but never on a massive steel beam bound for the top of an exciting, new construction project. And I’ve definitely never signed anything while standing next to a two ft.-tall Megellanic penguin dressed in his black and white birthday suit.
But this is just what happened when I recently attended the “Topping-Out” ceremony for the new $53-million Pacific Visions project at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. The January 30 event celebrated the last piece of structural steel to be put in place on the new building. Besides the project team and a bunch of media, the extravaganza also featured a real penguin from the Aquarium, who dipped his webbed feet in ink and also “signed” the beam.
“Pacific Visions will provide an aquarium experience unlike any other and will help our visitors gain a deeper understanding of their relationship with our planet,” said Aquarium President Dr. Jerry Shubel at the event.
The 29,000-sq-ft project is envisioned as a biomorphic structure that evokes the Pacific Ocean. Complementing the Aquarium’s existing building, Pacific Visions has a unique glass façade that doubles as a ventilated rain screen, made up of more than 800 non-reflective glass panels covering an area of 18,000 sq.-ft. Each panel is uniquely sized to accommodate the curves and angles of the building’s form. Bird-friendly glass will be used for the new façade to protect coastal birds from striking the building.
When complete in spring 2019, the new Aquarium wing will house a state-of-the-art immersive theater, expanded special exhibition space, art galleries, and also include a new front plaza. The two-story, 300-seat Honda Pacific Visions Theater will include a 32-ft-tall by 130-ft wide screen, curved in a 180-degree arc, and a 30-ft-diameter floor projection disc to immerse visitors in a virtual ocean environment. Aquarium officials say that each seat in the theater will be wired for interactivity, which will help tell the story of the ocean, “Allowing audiences to discover new species, witness the processes and phenomena of earth’s ecosystems.”
After touring the project site, I toured the rest of the Aquarium, which is completely open during construction. Showcasing more than 12,500 animals, the aquarium is built around three themed areas of the Pacific Ocean: the sunny Southern California and Baja region; the frigid waters of the North Pacific; and the colorful reefs of the Tropical Pacific. Sprinkled around these main areas are numerous other fun and informative exhibits, including Shark Lagoon and Lorikeet Forest.
The Aquarium’s newest exhibit is “FROGS: Dazzling and Disappearing,” which showcases the amazing diversity of frogs and their amphibian relatives. Close to two dozen species in thematic displays, educational graphics, and interactive exhibits highlight the beauty of and threats to these remarkable animals. The exhibit traces the history of amphibians, their life cycles, the different environments they live in from deserts to rainforests, the diversity of species, and their surprisingly uncertain future.
One of my favorite outdoor exhibits is “Shark Lagoon,” where visitors get up-close and even touchy-feely with more than 150 of the ocean’s ultimate predators. On my recent getaway, I peered through glass and came within inches of the chomping jaws of sand tiger, sandbar, nurse, whitetip and other large sharks. I also watched staff member empty buckets of fresh flesh into the water and witnessed the power, speed and hunger of these remarkable fish.
I then walked to another part of the exhibit, where docile Zebra, bamboo, and epaulette sharks are available to touch in three shallow pools. I learned to use a delicate, two finger touch technique on the animals, which I think they liked since I still have my fingers. Swimming with the sharks are giant graceful rays, such as the reticulate whipray that can grow to 14 ft. in length, the giant shovelnose ray that can grow to 8 ft. and the white spotted guitarfish that can reach 10 ft.
Leaving the shark tanks, I journeyed through “Lorikeet Forest,” a 3,200-sq-ft outdoor aviary where a crashing waterfall and lush trees are home to brilliantly colored lorikeets, which normally live in the coastal lowlands of Australia.