A heartening tale: the comeback of the Seattle Aquarium

After years of uncertainty and setbacks, the Seattle Aquarium unveils a $41 million expansion that showcases the watery critters of Puget Sound and beyond.
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The Seattle Aquarium's Window on Washington Waters. (Stephanie Bower)

After years of uncertainty and setbacks, the Seattle Aquarium unveils a $41 million expansion that showcases the watery critters of Puget Sound and beyond.

It's a measure of our times and perhaps our city's character that a $41 million expansion of the Seattle Aquarium generates just modest excitement. In the arena of Seattle's cultural institutions, the bar keeps rising. Big is not enough. It has to be very, very big. The aquarium's event last week was upstaged weeks earlier by the $81 million expansion of the downtown Seattle Art Museum. The museum's reopening triggered days of civic celebrations, special sections in the dailies, and new spirit of cool in Dr. Fuller's old institution. The aquarium got a measure of attention, but no citywide buzz. That's a shame, because it's heartening to see an institution battered by so many setbacks find its way to success. And as you might expect, the expansion provides bigger and better exhibits. There's no show stopper to rival, say, Baltimore's stingray exhibit, but the expansion does significantly improve our understanding and enjoyment of those creatures always on the edge of our land, if not our consciousness. For the aquarium, it's a welcome turnaround. Just a few years ago, the institution was in crisis. Worms were devouring piers that supported the 1977 building. Attendance was down. Plans to build a $200 million facility – the most expensive aquarium in the world – were abandoned, doomed by costs and controversy. Credit Aquarium Society CEO Robert Davidson and his board with not giving up. They scaled back plans and went forward with a design that preserved the original facade at Pier 59, improved the entry, increased exhibit space, provided a new cafe and store, and allowed for future expansion. More than half of funding came from city sources. The marquee exhibit is Window on Washington Waters, a 120,000-gallon, 17-by-39-foot showcase that evokes a Neah Bay environment of salmon, rockfish, sea anemones, and other animals. Several times a day, divers enter the water and converse with visitors on the other side of the giant window via a digital transmission system. Like the old aquarium, there are still plenty of opportunities to see those cute river otters, put your fingers ("gently") on starfish, walk through new exhibits that demonstrate how different wave patterns give life to discrete populations, and gaze into a tank that separates a male and a female octopus – who, you learn, are kept apart because after a successful mating, it's her last. She dies after releasing her eggs. (Sex is always a good theme; on your visit, ask about the fish that changes from female to male if no guys share the tank.) What I like about the aquarium is it's successful blending of reverence for nature, high tech, and plain old hokey stuff that kids love. I never quite understood the "research area" devoted to the seldom-seen six-gilled shark of the deepest depths of Puget Sound, but anything having to do with sharks is fine by me. One of my sorrows from the recent wars over the Alaskan Way Viaduct was to hear ridicule of the notion of re-connecting Seattle to its waterfront. Outside the aquarium, there's an awful din coming from that ugly thing. Not to pick a civic sore, but I'd still like to see us bury that monster and do more to bring the life of Puget Sound back to the front yard. The aquarium is all about why we should care.


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About the Authors & Contributors

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O. Casey Corr

O. Casey Corr is a Seattle native, author and marketing communications consultant.