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The Florida Aquarium's Bright Future

It didn’t take The Florida Aquarium’s president and CEO Roger Germann long to find his favorite hideaways in the facility. When he wants to “zen out” during a hectic day, he goes to the Coral Reef habitat, where the graceful creatures of the deep calm his mind and renew his spirit. When he wants to reflect on the Aquarium’s future, he goes to the roof, where he can see the nearby Water Street Tampa construction, including the new University of South Florida medical school. He watches cruise ships coming and going to the busy Port Tampa Bay, which has plans to add retail and residential projects to the waterfront. The bustling vista highlights for him the Aquarium’s role as an “economic driver.” And when Germann wants to become energized about the conservation message that underlies everything the aquarium does, he goes to the Wetlands Trail.

“No one has a facility like this,” he said proudly while recently leading me through the Wetlands, which is alive with the squawks of birds, the smell of live mangroves and the splashes of playful otters. “You get the sight, smells and sounds of Florida. It is so unique.” Germann said he loves to see visitors watch the redfish, snook, alligators, roseate spoonbills and other native Florida creatures. “I’ll sit in the corner and listen to our team explaining animal habits to guests,” he said. “You see kids taking selfies with otters. It really makes you excited about what we do.”

It’s been 14 months since the former executive at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago came to Tampa, and he remains exhilarated about what the aquarium is doing and plans to do. His tenure had an unexpected dicey start when powerful Hurricane Irma forced an emergency closure not long after he arrived. The complicated procedure went seamlessly and, fortunately, the facility was spared significant damage. Impressively, the Aquarium promptly reopened, providing a comfortable and welcoming refuge for storm-weary residents who were without power. After that stressful initiation, Germann could focus on the task at hand: making the Aquarium an elite conservation-focused attraction.

He is pleased by the Aquarium’s business success. Attendance is healthy. New features, such as the Splash Pad, the 4-D Theater and the Mosaic Center, are proving popular. This year’s Sea Grapes, the Aquarium’s signature fundraising event, was the most successful yet. The Florida Aquarium was ranked third best aquarium in the nation in a USA Today poll. Charity Navigator awarded it a top four-star rating for its fiscal stewardship. Yet Germann is equally, if not more, proud of the aquarium’s conservation achievements: its pioneering research on coral reproduction; its rescue and rehabilitation of dozens of sea turtles and other marine creatures; and its environmental education efforts that reach young and old alike.

The Aquarium has received widespread media coverage for its innovative research and animal care. A story on staffers devising tiny life vests to keep struggling leafy seadragons afloat went viral. “Everyone here is doing a great job of balancing margin and mission,” he said, underscoring that the Aquarium’s financial success is intended to support conservation and education. “I enjoy bridging the gap between being a world-class attraction and world-class conservation institution.”

When he took over, Germann took some time to quietly observe operations. “I wanted to evaluate the structure and the team. I wanted to feel the DNA.” His conclusion? “The team here is amazing. There’s a really robust commitment to conservation. It’s why we are so passionate. We care about animals, conservation and education.” He continued, “With a lot of husbandry people, they love the animals but don’t always want to deal with the public. But the aquarium staff is so personable; they love sharing with the public.”

He got his own household reports on the effectiveness of this past summer’s Aqua Camps, attended by more than 1,000 children. Participants included Germann’s eight-year-old son, Ike, and his seven-year-old daughter, Anica. They both relished the sessions and took their lessons to heart. Anica even spoke at a staff meeting about the importance of sustainable seafood practices.

Though Germann has been in the tourism-education business close to 20 years and has visited attractions throughout the country, he felt, “Aqua Camp is one of the best programs I’ve ever seen.” That doesn’t surprise him, given the staff’s overwhelming focus on the aquarium’s vision to “protect and restore the blue planet.” “No one here shies away from what we do,” he asserted. “The custodial staff is as just as committed to the animals’ welfare and engaging the public as anyone else.”

That is why a Germann priority is investing in workers’ salaries and health care benefits. He said The Aquarium is becoming widely known as a rewarding place to work. “We are now getting inquiries from the best of the best, locally and in the industry,” he said. “People understand where we’re going and want to be part of it. You can feel the energy.”

The juvenile-oriented Ocean Commotion gallery featuring the Aquarium’s second largest habitat, which has been mostly closed for two years, has transformed into the dynamic Waves of Wonder gallery featuring the Heart of the Sea habitat, which appeals to all ages. A portion of the new section highlights the coral and other marine research taking place at the Aquarium’s Center for Conservation at Apollo Beach. Eventually the center, which will include a sea turtle hospital, will be open to the public. Numerous other changes, including a revamped entrance, are planned. Germann and his staff will develop a five-year strategic plan, as well as a 10-year facility master plan.  “Plan-Ahead” pricing, which charges different prices for different days, began in July.

Germann said in the coming years he wants the Aquarium to live up to its name, attracting visitors and support from throughout Florida. Well aware that the development of The Florida Aquarium, which opened in 1995, precipitated the waterfront construction boom, Germann appreciates the importance of being a “hub for economic and workforce development.” A walk through the Aquarium with Germann reveals his attention to details large and small. He is pleased by the reopening of the small water-testing lab to public view. He noted, “Water is the life blood of what we do. The lab lets people see that and is a way of bridging science and attraction.” He’ll talk to visitors about the eating habits of the massive goliath grouper, discuss ways to allow the public closer to its South African penguins and reflect on how to maintain the public’s confidence.

“We are going to be transparent about everything we do,” he emphasized. “If an animal passes away, we are going to be truthful. This is about the cycle of life, and we need to be honest about that.” Germann has big expectations, envisioning the Aquarium becoming a “pillar of the community” by forming partnerships with nonprofit and private enterprises to expand its visibility and its message. He already feels the momentum. He said, “I think what is happening is we are finding our voice, and it is being heard in many circles.”

Story by Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune.