Mystic Aquarium readying new habitat exhibit, including home for four alligators

Workers install a life-sized model of a polar bear in the new 'Exploration: Wild' exhibit space at Mystic Aquarium Wednesday, March 18, 2015. The exhibit, which will feature a variety of wild environments, occupies the space that used to be home to Titanic exhibit and will open April 1.
Workers install a life-sized model of a polar bear in the new "Exploration: Wild" exhibit space at Mystic Aquarium Wednesday, March 18, 2015. The exhibit, which will feature a variety of wild environments, occupies the space that used to be home to Titanic exhibit and will open April 1.

Mystic — Mystic Aquarium is nearing completion of a new $500,000 exhibit that will promote conservation of various habitats around the world and feature four large alligators in an 11,000-gallon exhibit designed to put them just a few feet away from visitors. 

The aquarium is transforming the former Ocean Exploration Center, which featured the discoveries and expeditions of Titanic discoverer Bob Ballard, into a 7,000-square-foot exhibit entitled “Exploration: Wild.” 

The exhibit, where crews were busy at work on Wednesday, is slated to open to the public April 1. It is one of the largest new exhibits in the aquarium’s history. 

During a tour Wednesday, aquarium Public Relations Director Dale Wolbrink said the exhibit’s five interactive environments — the rainforest, Arctic, desert, wetlands and open ocean —will allow the aquarium to better promote the importance of conservation, which has always been a part of its mission. 

“It will allow us to talk about what we’re doing and help people understand that what they do affects the whole world,” she said. 

Each area has interactive digital kiosks with educational and conservation messages, games and photo opportunities including a virtual shark cage and a sled dog ride. In another area, children will be able to dig for artifacts, drive a remotely operated vehicle in the desert and play instruments made by rain forest inhabitants. 

“The idea is to be fun and educational at the same time and have an informational component as well,” Wolbrink said. 

On Wednesday, workers were maneuvering a life-sized sculpture of a standing polar bear into place. In the Arctic area it will snow and the Northern Lights will shine in the dome of the ceiling. The area also will have exhibits that explain the aquarium’s beluga whale research conducted both on premises and in the Arctic each summer. 

Exhibit designers also have integrated some of the unique structural aspects of the former Ballard exhibit into “Exploration: Wild,” including one in which visitors will descend stairs below the surface of the water and see video of sharks swimming by and feel them bumping the boat. 

Another area of the exhibit will allow the aquarium to expand its hands-on Scales & Tales program with three types of lizards. 

The new exhibit also will contain a National Geographic Theater that will show films each day. The building’s 4D theater also will remain. 

One section of the exhibit will continue to feature the discovery of the Titanic and Ballard’s ongoing expeditions. Ballard ended his 15-year relationship with the aquarium last year to focus on his many other endeavors. 

Unlike some of the aquarium’s past exhibits, in which outside designers were brought in, including some who have worked for Disney, Wolbrink said “Exploration: Wild” has been designed and built by aquarium staff. 

As for the alligators, Don Harrington, the aquarium’s vice president for exhibits, said the five- to six-foot reptiles will arrive March 29 from the 122-year-old St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park in Florida. Baby alligators have been part of the aquarium’s collection since 2002. 

He and Wolbrink pointed out that like Mystic Aquarium, the St. Augustine facility is a member of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. They said this ensures the alligators have been properly cared for and received veterinary care. 

The four females or three females and one male, will stay at the aquarium for three to five years. Harrington sad two males cannot be placed in the same exhibit because they are very territorial. 

The 1,200-square-foot exhibit is designed so there is a warm sandy area in front where the alligators can haul themselves out of the water just on the other side of the glass from visitors. There also will be weekly feeding demonstrations.

j.wojtas@theday.com

@joewojtas

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