The Florida Aquarium’s newly opened Waves of Wonder gallery offers such an involving experience that it is easy to overlook the complexity of making the project a reality. The logistics were daunting as the Aquarium transformed the kids-oriented Ocean Commotion gallery into the conservation-focused Waves of Wonder gallery with its centerpiece, Heart of the Sea habitat.
Since May, “we’ve had people changing carpet and painting, electricians changing lights and new signage being installed,” said Andy Wood, the Aquarium’s chief operating officer. “It all had to be completed at night.” Wood said the work would have been finished sooner “had the Aquarium simply closed the gallery for a month or two, but we decided to go slow and steady, and not do anything that would disturb our guest experience.” The result, nevertheless, is a dynamic, colorful and digitally compelling exhibit.
The decision to “repurpose” the gallery came soon after Roger Germann took over as the Aquarium chief executive officer and president last year. Finding the “Bait Ball” exhibit closed, Germann wanted to utilize the 100,000-gallon space, which is second only to the 500,000-gallon Coral Reef habitat in size. He wanted an experience that would tell visitors about the Aquarium’s conservation work, which is focused on coral reefs, sea turtles and sharks. The Creative and Animal Care teams were “given the freedom to bring the vision to life.”
Education, marketing and other department representatives also collaborated in the effort that evolved into a plan to revamp the entire Ocean Commotion gallery, not just the Bait Ball habitat. Pete Colangelo, the Aquarium’s director of creative services, could be forgiven if he was reluctant to scrap Ocean Commotion because it was the first project he oversaw when he joined the Aquarium 10 years ago.
But, while proud of the way kids connected with its animal characters, he also thought the exhibit had “run its course.” Ocean Commotion talked about the various animals in cartoon stories. This meant the Aquarium “couldn’t change the animals in the exhibit because they were tied to the cartoon story told in the gallery. We wanted to give animal husbandry staff more flexibility.” Colangelo also was excited by the challenge of transforming the gallery with a new look and theme. Or as Wood put it, “We are constantly looking for areas where we can improve our story telling.”
Details were critical as Colangelo and his staff sought to create a different atmosphere. “I wanted people to connect through the beauty and color of the ocean,” Colangelo said. “The carpet is fluorescent because the ocean is fluorescent.” The carpet’s blue and green colors and circular designs also convey the motion of ocean currents. Indeed, ocean rhythms are subtly replicated throughout Waves of Wonder. Colangelo explained the jagged track lightning above the walkway is intended to suggest the darting of fish, “the way they look when you kayak above them.” The lighting, he said, can be made much more spectacular for parties or special events. The music was changed from the upbeat Ocean Commotion songs to music with the serenity of waves.
While the smaller exhibits remained, all the graphics around them were changed, using vivid photographs and signage about the creatures. Colangelo even sought to suggest the structure of staghorn coral in the layout of the explanatory signs. A key addition was digital technology, with monitors showing slides and videos at each station. A major Waves of Wonder message is animal welfare. Passages, denoted with a heart, describe the animals’ needs and how they are kept healthy.
One learns, for instance, the sea nettle feeds two or three times a day and eats fish, crabs, zooplankton and even other sea nettles. The animal welfare explanations expand on the conservation message that underpins everything the Aquarium does. Heart of the Sea, which inspired the overhaul, is indeed the heart of the Waves of Wonder gallery. It contains tarpon, sea turtles, sharks, and hundreds of reef fish. The habitat now contains a spectacular “aquascape,” a rocky wall that provides naturalistic habitat for marine life of various sizes. Colangelo pointed out hidden features such as heart-shaped brain coral, which he hopes kids will delight in detecting. The rock wall also was designed to enhance animal care. An opening near the top of the rock formation allows fish to swim from the 25-foot tank into a three-foot deep platform, where they are fed each day.
A gate to the opening can be closed. This allows the staff to calmly isolate a fish, accustomed to swimming into the area, that requires medical examination or treatment. This is more complex than it sounds. Senior biologist Laura Wandel explained the different species must be conditioned to come to a different “target” in the platform for feeding. The targets “all have different shapes and color. There may be an acrylic shape on a pole. The sea turtle target actually has picture of a sea turtle. The tarpon go to a hula hoop to be feed.” Teaching the fish to feed at separate targets, enables biologists to treat the fish with minimum stress. Equally important, the activity stimulates the fish, keeping them engaged and vigorous.
Cameras in the exhibit—above it, on a pole and on a diver’s mask—allow visitors to watch the interactions from different angles on the monitors on the exhibit path. Notably, the Heart of the Sea also contains coral “trees” made of PVC pipes like those the Aquarium researchers utilize in the Florida Keys alongside the Coral Restoration Foundation to grow coral, which is rapidly disappearing in many sections of the Florida Reef Tract. The display illustrates the Aquarium’s comprehensive campaign to reviving Florida’s imperiled coral reefs. In the wild, the real coral hung from the trees would grow rapidly in the free-flowing water, surrounded by food, water flow and light. Eventually, the fragments can be attached to a natural reef. The coral on the Heart of the Sea “trees” is artificial. Making sure the sea turtles didn’t munch on the fake coral was just one of countless details addressed by biologists.
One of the two sea turtles in the habitat is a rescue that had suffered injuries that made it “non-releasable,” though it can be kept healthy at the Aquarium. But, otherwise, Wandel said most of the fish in the Heart of the Sea came from other tanks in the facility. Nevertheless, the animals had to be quarantined “to check for parasites and disease and be treated if necessary. We make sure they are eating well and start teaching them to come to their targets.”
The biologists even take care that the fish “get along. You don’t want them eating their reef-mates.” That is achieved by constant attention to their nutrition. Teaching each species to eat at its specific target also guards against chowtime mishaps. The Waves of Wonder project included new quarantine tanks that increased capacity by about a third. Also, critically important, Wandel emphasized, was ensuring the water chemistry was perfect before any fish were put in the new habitat. The staff religiously monitors water quality in all Aquarium exhibits.
The wall displays near the Heart of the Sea relate the Aquarium staff’s coral reef field work and the pioneering research being conducted at the Aquarium’s Center for Conservation at Apollo Beach. Researchers are growing healthy coral larvae at two greenhouse-like “arks” at the Center with the hope of strengthening the gene pool and eventually releasing healthy corals into the wild. In 2014, The Florida Aquarium became the first institution to successfully reproduce staghorn coral in a lab. Six more arks are planned for the Center, which will also include a sea turtle hospital, research labs and education facilities. When completed, it will be open and free for the public to enjoy.
As one leaves the gallery, signs reminds visitors that though individually we are but drops in the ocean, to make an ocean “every drop counts.” Then numerous small ways that people can make every drop count are listed. They include giving up straws to reduce plastic use and closing curtains during the day to minimize the need for air-conditioning. As visitors exit, they are thanked in dozens of languages. The reason? Admissions help fund the Aquarium’s conservation and education work.
Germann and his team felt telling the Waves of Wonder conservation and animal-welfare story was so important, they funded the $1.5 million project without a capital campaign. Now that it’s completed, Wood said, the Aquarium may pursue corporate sponsorships. Waves of Wonder’s strong stewardship message doesn’t make it any less fun. It offers close and delightful encounters with unique creatures and gives visitors a behind-the-scenes look at animal care.
But the redesigned gallery also powerfully communicates the ocean’s beauty, mystery and fragility. Visitors are likely to leave with a sense of wonder and a resolve to protect and restore our Blue Planet.
Story by Joe Guidry, former opinion editor, The Tampa Tribune