- Reporters Desk
By Eric Fujimori, Editorial Intern
Cabrillo Marine Aquarium has come a long way from its start as a beachside display table of sea specimens in empty mayonnaise jars in 1935. Since then, it’s evolved into one of San Pedro’s most popular waterfront attractions.
The success is due in part to the aquarium’s history of creating and executing ambitious yet achievable plans for expansion. Hoping to continue the trend, a $25 million plan has been drawn up and is ready to be put into action.
The project, which was presented to the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners March 19, includes plans for a more visible entryway, a new pavilion and a refurbished exhibit hall, among other features. These plans will be officially unveiled at the aquarium’s Grand Grunion Gala on April 25.
Mike Schaadt, director of the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium, said the expansion plan wasn’t designed to bring in more visitors, but to improve upon the quality of their experience.
“We do not expect visitor numbers to rise a great deal,” Schaadt said. “What we want is a better experience for them.”
This vision is consistent with those that served as the foundations for past projects.
In 1981, the aquarium moved to its current location after spending years in a bathhouse at Cabrillo Beach. The most significant aspect of the move was that the new facility was able to house live animals. An exhibit hall, an auditorium and staff offices were constructed as well.
The aquarium’s most recent renovation project was completed in 2004. Led by former executive director, Susanne Lawrenz-Miller, the project was highlighted by the addition of an aquatic nursery, exploration center and library. The $10 million expansion enabled the aquarium to accommodate daily school tours and more public visitation, which was a major objective from the start.
Like these past renovations, the new project is not going to be completed in one night. Projected to take 10 to 15 years, certain aspects will take priority over others.
At the top of the agenda is the installation of an information hub near the front entrance. There, visitors will be able to interact with staff members and ask questions.
Another priority is the new exhibit hall, which will be renovated to include more interactive exhibits, such as an intertidal zone and a whale room. The new features will be primarily focused on marine life in and around the Harbor area.
“The exhibit hall will include a couple larger aquariums that make it obvious that we’re talking about Southern California and why this is such a special place for ocean life,” Schaadt said.
Schaadt explained that the aquarium is next to a biodiverse part of the ocean. The region is the farthest south that many marine animals from the northern West Coast travel. It also is the northernmost limit for marine animals that primarily inhabit waters from Baja California down to the equator.
The most expensive and perhaps most innovative addition to the aquarium is the new pavilion. Estimated to cost $11 million, the structure will feature historic collections, thematic exhibits and a workshop and lab area for those interested in robotics and 3-D printing.
Although much of the funding has yet to be allocated, the aquarium has a steady flow of annual contributions to get the project started. The Port of Los Angeles provides the most help, giving $3 million a year to support the aquarium. Donations from the aquarium’s 300,000 annual visitors are also a significant contributor.
While the rest of the money continues to be raised, minor renovations have already begun. The fence in front of the aquarium’s entry is being repainted and receiving new chain links.
Although the new features are expected to be flashier than the current installations, the aquarium hopes to maintain its tradition of being a center for education first and entertainment second.
Schaadt said he hopes that the upgrades and additions will serve to better inform visitors of important issues relating to the ocean, such as climate change, overfishing, marine pollution and endangered species.
“In the process of telling the story of California marine life, we want to sprinkle in these issues,” Schaadt said. “We want people to know so they can make informed decisions when they vote.”
While the plan gradually unfolds, the aquarium will continue to captivate and educate visitors with its array of programs and activities.
One such program is the Discovery Lecture Series, a collaborative effort with the world-class urban marine research and innovation center, AltaSea. The program brings scientists and teachers to the aquarium’s John M. Olguin Auditorium on selected Friday nights to discuss different topics related to marine research and developments.
The aquarium also offers a variety of hands-on programs for both grade-level and high school students such as marine biology workshops and whale watching.
More of these educational programs are expected to be offered throughout the process of the expansion project.
Cabrillo Marine Aquarium is open year-round from 12 to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Suggested donation of $5 for adults and $1 for children and seniors. Details: (310) 548-7562.