The Florida Aquarium

by: Dan DeBono



March 31, 1995 will mark a big day--and a step up--for the city of Tampa Bay, as that is opening day for the new Florida Aquarium. The huge project is the foundation of an overall renaissance of the Tampa port area, and the 152,000 square-foot facility is projected to experience about 1.8 million visitors per year!

With the ever-increasing focus on conservation and ecology--and after finding out just how much revenue these tourists magnets can gather for the surrounding area--many large cities are getting onto the aquarium bandwagon, and its good to see that Tampa has decided to not only build an aquarium, but has moved to the forefront with a world-class, state-of-the-art educational facility.

The aquarium is headed by a private, not-for-profit corporation, presided over by John C. Racanelli, who opened and helped lead the world famous Monterey Bay Aquarium for eight years.

Mr. Racanelli wants the aquarium to be much more than just a place to see some fish.

"The mission of the Florida Aquarium is to awaken people's curiosity and to instill a respect for an environment that is at once beautiful, diverse, interrelated and in peril. Like the waters is showcases, the aquarium will be a living entity, a place to both celebrate and contemplate the natural world," he said in his Executive Summary. And with their unique design emphasis on an interesting, educational experience, the aquarium should easily be able to live up to these lofty expectations.

The Tour

"The aquarium is set up like a big, self-guided tour," explained Lisa Whitaker, an aquarium community relations specialist, and the guide for my behind-the-scenes tour. "And the tour actually begins out in the parking lot, where a naturalized drainage system will provide a laboratory for storm water runoff management."

And after heading into the spacious grand lobby, you ascend the large staircase--or take one of the aquarium's user-friendly elevators--up to the Florida Wetlands Gallery. This is the exhibit which rests under the more than 1,000 large glass panels which make up the signature shell shaped dome of the aquarium. In this gallery, your trail will twist through a cypress swamp, take you past a waist-high stream, and you even get to check out a cross-section of a typical Central Florida spring. River otters, hatchling alligators, spoonbills, turtles and a wide assortment of native fish species share this exhibit much as they would share the ecosystem out in the wild.

"What we are doing is tracing the path of a drop of water through the many habitats in which it would actually travel in nature. It falls as rain, then drains down into the aquifer, where it eventually makes its way back up to the surface in a spring," said Whitaker.

And the next stop for our little drop of water, which has now flowed downriver from its spring, is the shallow waters of the mangroves, where it begins to mix with the salty water of the Gulf of Mexico.

We then continue along our path where we end up in the Florida Bays and Beaches gallery. We get to see just how interrelated man, plants and animals are in this interesting and diverse ecosystem. An especially interesting exhibit is the underwater bridge exhibit, where we see just what lies under all those bridges and causeways in the bay area.

Our next stop is the aquarium's largest exhibit: the Florida Coral Reefs gallery. This is a one-of-a-kind exhibit which allows non-divers to truly experience what lures the millions of annual visitors to North America's only living coral reefs--right here in our Florida! The exhibit simulates a dive first through the shallow water reefs, then down deeper into the 60-foot range. The coral isn't real, but the museum quality replicas can fool any but the most seasoned reef visitors--and maybe even them! A dozen windows offer views of different coral types, before you get to the immense 43 foot long, 14 foot high bay window. The view from this remarkable area is gorgeous, and this is where non-divers can approximate the feeling of actually swimming through a Florida reef.

Another unique, and often ignored, habitat which the Florida Aquarium highlights is the Florida Offshore gallery. Here is where the open ocean fishes--referred to as pelagic species--swim and drift about with sea turtles, jellyfish, tarpon and sharks. These fish are used to unencumbered areas, and the aquarium has designed a series of tanks especially for them.

After touring through any of the four main exhibit areas, one gets the sense that this aquarium is quite different. There will be no splashing dolphin shows, or emphasis on a particular endangered marine mammal.

"Sea World and Lowery Park Zoo do a good job with that type of thing," said Whitaker. "We are not out to compete with them. We're going about this from a totally different angle."

Instead of highlighting a particular kind of fish, the aquarium will showcase a particular habitat, and show all the interrelated parts that make up the whole ecosystem.

The aquarium also has a wide variety of hands-on exhibits, and aquarium personnel are located at stations throughout your journey to answer questions, make presentations and add to the overall enjoyment of your experience at the Florida Aquarium. After touring the main gallery, visitors are encouraged to stop by the Conservation Station, where they can obtain free materials regarding conservation groups in their locales. And before leaving, visitors can get a snack or dinner at the grand lobby's restaurant, or go on over to the gift shop for a much needed souvenir to chronicle your day of adventure.