After five successful years, the Oklahoma Aquarium has announced plans to renovate two of its major exhibits.
The Biodiversity and the Adaptation exhibits will be receiving additions, according to a July 17 press release.
Teri Bowers, Chief Operations Officer and Executive Director of the Oklahoma Aquarium, discussed the reasons for these renovations in an interview.
"Our attendance has been increasing year to year, in part, because we're building stronger awareness in the Tulsa metro area, but also because we're drawing an increasing number of visitors from the Oklahoma City area and we have about one-third of our guests coming from across state lines," Bowers said.
As a tourist attraction, Bowers went on to say, "It is critical to be able to offer something new on a regular basis to keep visitors coming back."
The renovations are not only aimed at giving repeat visitors more bang for their buck, but also at smoothing the museum experience for each of its customers.
The floor plan of the opening area, including the Biodiversity exhibit, was initially comprised of many small tanks with a center wall. As traffic increased, the employees noted a jam. To facilitate flow, the center wall was removed.
"[This provided] more free space," said Bowers.
There are still some traffic issues in that exhibit, which the renovation should fix.
"By balancing small tanks with large, there will be [fewer visitors] stopping at small exhibits, thereby improving traffic flow."
The exhibit itself will feature a recreation of a shrimp fishing vessel and will provide information about aquatic invertebrates. Animals such as shrimp and horseshoe crabs are to be included in this new exhibit.
Some animals in the Biodiversity exhibit will be moved to other tanks in the facility.
The main attraction of the new exhibit will be the interactive station, which will provide visitors the opportunity to touch and feed these invertebrates.
The Aquarium has two "touch tanks" at present. Bowers says that the biologists' experience with maintaining these tanks makes the addition of a third tank a logical choice. Even though one of the current tanks houses sharks and stingrays, "This is an entirely safe experience because the sharks are a small species (bamboo) that do not have teeth."
Instead, they have "grinding palates," which cannot be used to attack humans.
Similarly, the Aquarium's biologists clip the stingrays' barbs, which Bowers compares to clipping a fingernail.
"The hands-on exhibits are very popular with children. That's why you will see more and more of them added over the years to come."
The exhibits' popularity with children makes them powerful learning tools.
"Children learn with all five senses, it's important for them to be able to see, hear, touch, and we even integrate smell and taste in some our classroom and camp lessons."
Regarding the palate, Bowers added, "Don't worry: saltwater, not fish!"
The second announced addition further presses home the Aquarium's emphasis on learning with all five senses. The Adaptation exhibit will receive a new tank with tunnels through which children can crawl and explore.
This new tank will become a home for some arapaima, the world's largest freshwater fish, as well as freshwater stingrays. An island in the tank's center will house iguanas.
The tank will also feature "pop-ups," which are points in the crawl-through tunnels at which children (and other adventurous visitors) can stand up and look around. The exhibit is intended to put visitors inside an aquatic world.
This "crawl-through tank" will be constructed on-site. The acrylic which composes the tank's walls will be ordered to a certain specification, then assembled by Aquarium staff.
"Our deputy director, Kenny Alexopoulos, and Curator, John Money, are the primary designers [and], just like the Hayes Family Ozark Stream, the staff builds it and tends to every detail."
The Hayes Family Ozark Stream was the Aquarium's most recent addition. The Stream opened last March, introduced mammals to the Aquarium's menagerie, and was the largest addition since the museum's opening in 2003.
"Branching out to include mammals did provide some new challenges in learning the specific care for the river otters, raccoons and beavers as far as diet, handling and habitat."
The Aquarium contacted experts on those animals to ensure their maximum comfort and well-being.
"[Even] the caretaker we acquired one otter from came to visit to see firsthand if the structure of the tanks and rock work were suitable for the otters."
The Hayes Family Ozark Stream was dedicated to Dr. Mark Hayes, who sought to educate the Oklahoman public about stream ecology. He helped the Oklahoma Aquarium biologists design the exhibit, and even helped fund it. However, he did not live to see its completion.
The organizations which provided financial support for that exhibit were the Hayes Family, the Oxley Foundation, and the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation and the Oklahoma Centennial Commission.
The Aquarium is currently seeking sponsors and donors for the two announced renovations.
"[As a not for profit organization] we rely heavily on community support to continue growing and improving and providing unique educational opportunities for children and adults," said Bowers, who is personally heading the initiative to recruit sponsors.
The Kaiser Family Foundation has donated to support the Aquarium's Fish Friends program, which has provided learning opportunities for over 500 students who could not visit the Aquarium without financial assistance.
"We also just received word of a $500,000 grant toward construction of a new sea turtle exhibit. All species of sea turtles are either endangered or threatened, and they play a vital role in the health of the ocean, so we very much want to put the two turtles we have behind the scenes out for the public to learn about and enjoy."
The Aquarium's biologists intend all these additions and renovations to educate the public about the importance of biodiversity and ecological conservation as well as to enlighten children about the multitudinous ways life on our planet manifests.
"[We] help make [our visitors] more appreciative and protective of all of the animals that play an important role in the health of our environment."
The Aquarium anticipates completion of the Biodiversity renovations by March 2009. The addition of the crawl-through tank, which has not yet been named, to the Adaptation exhibit should be completed by March 2010.
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