March 2012 Issue
Making a Splash
Dive into the new Greater Cleveland Aquarium.
It's not every day you get to run your fingers down the hard, spiny arms of a starfish.
At least not in northeast Ohio, that is. But it’s one of the standout features at the new Greater Cleveland Aquarium.
The only freestanding aquarium (meaning it’s not part of a zoo or other attraction) in Ohio opened on January 21, bringing more than 16,000 visitors for its opening weekend. Costing around $33 million, the attraction brings fishy fun back to the city for the first time since the region’s last freestanding aquarium closed in 1985.
But the marine life isn’t the only attraction. The city’s newest destination was built in an unlikely location: a 19th-century power station that once kept Cleveland’s streetcars running. In fact, the FirstEnergy Powerhouse’s coal tunnels and smokestacks — along with the challenges of working around National Register of Historic Places restrictions prohibiting structural change — were among the reasons Marinescape NZ Limited, a firm known for designing walk-through aquariums around the globe, chose Cleveland as the site for its first aquarium in the United States.
“All of these architectural features got them really excited about the potential for the building,” says aquarium general manager Tami Brown. “And if you visit now, you’ll see a wonderful marriage of the historical and industrial building with the brand new aquarium tanks.”
Brown’s right. The more than 40 tanks, which hold approximately 1 million gallons of fresh and salt water, blend seamlessly into the 45,000-square-foot exhibition area housed in the powerhouse’s four-story basement. They’re tucked into tight spots in coal tunnels that are — along with the criss-crossing industrial beams that border narrow walkways — reminders of the building’s former purpose.
And then there’s Brown’s favorite design element: a circular tank built into a smokestack and suspended above a walkway. The tank is home to a group of spiny lobsters, whose spindly legs and antennae cast shadows onto the floor and onlookers below. The effect is decidedly creepy.
“Using one of the two smokestacks, which are kind of a signature of this building, and [seeing] a tank above you as you walk in is just so cool,” she says.
But while mom and dad may marvel at the architecture, their offspring are going to be in awe of the aquatic life before them.
The nearly 5,000 animals, representing 100 species, reside in realistic, meticulously designed habitats, including “Weird and Wonderful” (populated by seahorses and octopuses) and a swamp exhibit filled with alligators lying in wait under the porch of a Spanish-moss-covered shack. The “Coastal” area features a coral reef and a “touch” tank, where guests can pet starfish, horseshoe crabs and other creatures while a diver divulges fun facts about them.
If the kids aren’t already excited enough from touching the animals, the sea tube might just blow their minds.
“Many aquariums do have [one of these],” says Brown, about the 145-foot glass tunnel that carves a path through the water. “But they don’t have one this long that curves through an entire half-a-million-gallon shark tank.”
The mammoth sea tube is certainly impressive — 7-foot-long Sand Tiger Sharks and schools of stingrays swim above visitors on their way from one end of the tank to the other, which has a replica of a shipwreck resting in its depths.
Another unique feature: A sizable portion of the aquarium is devoted to an “Ohio Rivers and Lakes” exhibit, focusing on educating guests about the inhabitants of the state’s waterways — including catfish, sunfish and minnows. Displays explain the conservation efforts under way to keep our water safe from pollution and invasive species. Clearly, it’s an in-depth look at environmentalism that hits close to home.
Education and conservation are of major importance to the aquarium, explains Brown. Plans are currently in the works to enhance the aquarium’s teaching potential with programs for visiting school groups. Topics to be explored, which include life cycles and the food chain, will tie in with Ohio Proficiency Test standards. Aquarium personnel are also in the early stages of talks with the Cleveland Metropolitan School District to expose children in urban areas to the aquarium.
With an annual expected attendance of 400,000 to 500,000 tourists, schoolchildren and northeast Ohio residents, Brown hopes the aquarium’s location on the west bank of Cleveland’s industrial Flats will breathe new life into the historic area.
“I think it’s going to bring a lot of people down into the Flats and remind them how wonderful being right on the river is, with its beautiful views of the skyline and bridges,” says Brown. “And I think people will kind of rediscover the Flats and there will be an opportunity for revitalization within this area.”
In the meantime, an on-site restaurant and catering facilities at Windows on the River share the building. Outdoor concert venue Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica is next door. And with other projects in the works nearby, including Horseshoe Casino, a Medical Mart and redevelopment of the east bank of the Flats all slated to debut in the next several years, Brown’s vision for the future just might come true.
But while tourism is certainly welcome and revitalization of the neighborhood hoped for, the most important goal of the aquarium is conservation.
“Long term, our goal is really for the people of Cleveland to have a better understanding — and maybe even develop a passion for — why it’s so important to keep our water clean, particularly in our own back yard,” affirms Brown.
“Globally, we’ll do that by really having them fall in love with the creatures that they see here,” she adds. “And realize that it’s a must to keep their environment healthy, so they can thrive.”
One touch of a starfish should do the trick.
When You Go
Greater Cleveland Aquarium
2000 Sycamore St., Cleveland, 44113