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Becoming a big fish

Long Beach's Aquarium of the Pacific has hit its 10th anniversary, earning a shining reputation and millions of visitors along the way.

June 21, 2008|Louis Sahagun | Times Staff Writer

As Jerry Schubel strolled through the newest exhibit at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, which turned 10 years old Friday, a swarm of giggling children gathered in front of a massive tank where a dozen silver Mexican lookdown fish as big as dinner plates circled a hedge of coral.

Schubel, president and chief executive of the aquarium, smiled as the kids pressed closer to ponder the colorful spectacle designed to highlight sea life in the Gulf of Mexico.

"It's our first attempt to theme a display from top to bottom," he said. "The carpet here is made of recycled materials. The color scheme of tans, reds and yellows evokes a feeling of being in a desert region. The interpretive signs are in both English and Spanish."

The earthy colors and environmentally sensitive design underlined renewed efforts to expand exhibit space and boost attendance at the regional attraction, which a decade ago was awash in complaints of overcrowded rooms, lousy food and boring exhibits.

Not anymore. The aquarium ranks among the most popular in the nation in attendance, pulling in 1.4 million people a year from throughout Southern California. Aquarium revenues in 2007 were about $39 million, a 26% increase over 2006. Overall, its economic impact in Los Angeles and Orange counties has been about $1 billion, city officials said.

"This aquarium is on the younger side," said Steve Feldman, spokesman for the Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums, "but they are definitely among the biggest and the best."

In partnership with a growing number of corporations and organizations including Honda, the BP Foundation, the World Wildlife Fund and the San Gabriel and Lower Los Angeles Rivers and Mountains Conservancy, the aquarium now aims to become a center for teaching the virtues of watershed preservation and offshore aquaculture.

"I'm impressed with all the public outreach they do," said Gary Griggs, director of the Institute of Marine Sciences at UC Santa Cruz. "To have such a resource at the edge of one of the nation's largest metropolitan areas is wonderful."

More than 12 million people have visited the facility, which was built during a nationwide boom in aquarium construction in the 1990s. It was conceived as a cornerstone of a waterfront retail and amusement complex that would lure visitors to downtown Long Beach. At the time, the city was struggling to cope with the closure of a naval shipyard and the loss of about 50,000 jobs.

The aquarium was designed to meet its $117-million bond obligation through attendance revenue. But revenues failed to keep pace with bond payments, and the city of Long Beach refinanced the attraction's debt in 2001 to lower the annual payments.

The aquarium recruited new managers, who set to work responding to negative reviews. Concession menus were improved and a time-ticketing system was installed to accommodate no more than 2,500 visitors at a time.

The aquarium also made news by opening its "Shark Lagoon" exhibit and by receiving an award from the Assn. of Zoos and Aquariums, a nonprofit organization that accredits facilities that have met rigorous standards, for being the first facility in the world to successfully breed bizarre creatures known as weedy sea dragons.

As part of an effort to diversify what began as a largely white customer base, the aquarium launched a series of six annual "cultural festivals" featuring the foods, dances and celebrations of various ethnic groups rooted in surrounding communities. The aquarium also hosts a "Festival of Human Abilities," featuring a hip-hop wheelchair dance performance.

At a time when the world's seas are in deep blue trouble, the aquarium assists in local coastal cleanups and fish population surveys. Last week it opened an exhibit called "Ocean on the Edge: Top 10 Ocean Issues," which includes a display that compares healthy coral with samples bleached white by diseases brought on by stress and temperature change.

Then there is the "fish head trail" being developed by Adam Summers, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Irvine, and his students, which will invite visitors to explore how anatomy relates to function.

"With information to be supplied in glossy handouts," Summers said, "people will learn that the rubberlip surfperch, which smashes its mouth into the bottom to free up crustaceans, has big soft lips to cushion the blows and a mouth suited for sucking up food. They will also learn that the streamlined body and head of a barracuda is perfect for lunging forward and chopping prey in half."

It's one of many ways the aquarium is trying to reach out to children and their parents.

"The aquarium has made tremendous progress," said Mario Molina, chairman of the Aquarium of the Pacific's board of directors. "But I still make a point of walking around the facility, watching to see if kids are having a good time and getting a sense of awe from the diversity of life right outside our back door."

Los Angeles mail handler Tash Thompson and her 11-year-old son, Perris, stood for 20 minutes transfixed by the bounty of fish swimming around a 30-foot-tall, 124,000-gallon Blue Cavern tank facing the main entrance.

"I brought Perris here to celebrate his graduation and his birthday," Thompson said. "We've been talking about coming here for years. Now we don't want to leave."


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