Point Defiance officials to detail renovation plans for zoo, aquarium

The vision for improved marine life at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium includes a bigger aquarium with colorful fish, more room for polar bears to splash around, and maybe a California sea lion exhibit.

For months, officials have been searching for the right spot to put the two-level Pacific Rim Aquarium that will replace the current facility, which is showing signs of corrosion from saltwater.

They’re also going to expand Rocky Shores in hopes of one day breeding polar bears and bringing exhibits up to international standards.

These are among the plans zoo officials want to highlight for residents Wednesday at an informational meeting at the Tacoma zoo’s Education Center.

The improvements are being made with $65.4 million voters approved in a bond measure last year.

Officials started with five potential sites for the new aquarium — including a popular bluff outside of the zoo’s footprint that proved too expensive to build on — and have whittled them to two.

The “gateway” site is between Wild Wonders Outdoor Theater and Rocky Shores. The “bowl” site is where visitors go for camel rides (the area overlooks the zoo’s bowl area behind South Pacific Aquarium).

“Right now, the gateway site feels better from a pedestrian flow standpoint,” said Gary Geddes, director of zoological and environmental education. “It also has a greater interpretative advantage as you transition to Rocky Shores and prepare to see marine mammals.”

The new aquarium will be 25,000 to 30,000 square feet, slightly larger than the current 20,000-square-foot North Pacific Aquarium built in 1963. The Pacific Rim Aquarium could add warm-water exhibits for sea turtles and hammerhead sharks.

Once a site is selected, the zoo will choose a firm to design the facility. It could possibly open in mid-2018, Geddes said.

The North Pacific Aquarium has been deteriorating for years because of saltwater used in the exhibits. Officials have said they need to empty saltwater from the aquarium within five years or risk not being able to reuse the building.

Once the new aquarium is complete, the North Pacific Aquarium could be renovated and made into a South American rain forest display with small primates and fish.

“It’d be a representation in our collection we’ve not had,” Geddes said.

While designs move forward with Pacific Rim Aquarium, the zoo will work on redoing Arctic Tundra, which houses three male polar bears.

The bears’ exhibit would nearly double to provide additional behind-the-scenes areas to work with the animals and a breeding den.

Although the three polar bears are neutered, the zoo hopes to bring in more polar bears in the future and eventually breed them. That project’s price tag is estimated to be about $14 million.

The polar bear exhibit won awards when it opened in 1982, but the number of zoo visitors has significantly increased, meaning bigger crowds and less space for people to watch the marine mammals.

Annual attendance back then was about 300,000. Now, annual attendance tops 581,000.

Also due for improvements is the Rocky Shores area, which houses walruses, puffins, otters and more.

Plans include more viewing area, upgraded seawater filters and general improvements to the animal life-support systems, which carry saltwater in and out of the exhibits. California sea lions could be moved into the exhibit where harbor seals now live.

About $4 million is set aside for that work.