Greater Cleveland Aquarium takes the plunge with a major $250,000 upgrade and 12 new species

Nearly 1.5 million people have visited the Greater Cleveland Aquarium since it opened six years ago in the Powerhouse on the West Bank of the Flats—viewing and learning about the ocean and freshwater creatures, amphibians, and reptiles in Ohio and around the globe.

Building on that momentum, the Aquarium is undergoing a $250,000 renovation to update and improve the experience and bring in a dozen new species. The improvements will also provide a more hands-on experience throughout the aquarium’s seven galleries and exhibits.

“This is the largest renovation we’ve done since we opened six years ago,” says Aquarium general manager Tami Brown. "From finding ways to highlight the building’s industrial history and its relationship to the Cuyahoga River to giving toddlers opportunities to engage with the Aquarium through play, guest feedback is informing all of the publicly visible changes.”

Work has already started on the project, which came after a capital improvement plan was approved last fall from parent company Colorado-based Jacobs Entertainment, Inc. “We began planning right away,” says Brown, noting that attendance has increased significantly in the past couple of years. “Last year we had a quarter-million guests come through.”

The Asia & Indonesia gallery features a Japanese maple tree and a mangrove tree towering out of cylindrical fish tanks - photo Bob Perkoski
According to Brown, almost 75 percent of the aquarium will be renovated, and the aquarium will remain open throughout the improvements, scheduled for completion in early 2019. The first phase of the project should be done by the end of the month.

The Ohio’s Lakes and Rivers exhibit was updated in 2014 (although some additional exhibits are being added), and the Shark exhibit updated in 2015, so those will remain intact. “We’re upgrading everything except two galleries,” Brown explains.

Some existing spaces will get new names and themes, such as the Rainforest and Industry & Habitat galleries, while all the spaces will now offer an immersive experience and spotlight conservation messages. All the favorites—sharks, electric eels, and stingrays—will still be a part of the experience.

True-to-life displays

After the renovation, the galleries and exhibits will be designed to plunge visitors into atmospheres resembling various regions of Ohio and the world. “We’re telling a visual story [to create] an immersive quality, so we can make habitat and geographic connections,” says Brown. “When you walk into a gallery, you'll feel like you’ve been transported to a different place.”

For instance, the Asia & Indonesia gallery will feature a Japanese maple tree towering out of a cylindrical fish tank and a mangrove tree bending above another tank. The Coastal Boardwalk— where the stingray touch tank is located—will feature carpeting that resembles the wood planks of an East Cost boardwalk and mockups of storefronts. The boardwalk area will even have buoys and real sand interspersed with epoxy granulated stone to simulate real sand.

“[It will] feel like a day at the beach,” says Brown of the Coastal Boardwalk gallery. “The exhibits will look like the windows of the shops.”

Bruce Orendorf - Courtesy of Greater Cleveland AquariumMuch of the exhibits’ immersive qualities are thanks to the creativity and ingenuity of Bruce Orendorf, the aquarium’s director of artistic production and operations. Orendorf not only models his designs out of real-life examples—for instance, the Japanese maple duplicates a tree in Oregon famous for its beauty and shape—but he also creates the displays using mostly upcycled materials.

For instance, to create the trees, Orendorf used lumber, old towels, paper and wire that the aquarium already had, plus rope from the shark exhibit, to create the trees; the material for the branches came from shredded documents made into a slurry “to give it texture."

Orendorf uses only animal-friendly epoxies to build his creations, and he sources materially locally as much as possible, getting the tree foliage from Autograph Foliages.

“It’s a labor of love,” Orendorf says. “Each [tree] was built in our shop and then we bring them out and attach them, paint them, put the leaves on them, and light them from above.”

Orendorf calls on his background in theatre design to bring the displays to life, often ending up in the spotlight himself—he says he’s gotten used to guests pointing at him and asking questions while he stands in the fish tanks, assembling the trees.

Some new faces

About a dozen new species will be introduced to many of the aquarium’s galleries, and some them have already arrived. Aquarium curator Stephanie White acquires all the animals through licensed vendors or via a network of other aquariums.

The weedy seadragon - courtesy of the GCAThe weedy seadragons—similar to seahorses, but up to 18 inches long—have already arrived in the Indo-Pacific gallery, which will soon become the Industry & Habitat gallery. Native to Australia, the seadragons are colorful, yet also adept at blending into their environment with leaf-like appendages that make them resemble seaweed.

Recent additions to the Asia & Indonesia gallery include the frilled lizard (native to northern Australia and southern New Guinea), and the green tree python (also native to New Guinea). The former was the inspiration for the Dilophosaurus dinosaur in the 1993 movie Jurassic Park (although the real frilled lizard does not spit poisonous venom). The latter is bright green and can be as long as six feet. Solomon Island leaf frogs will join the group in a few weeks.

Also soon to arrive at the aquarium are flashlight fish, which have reflective bacteria underneath their eyes. “It will be a very dark space, and you’ll see these lights moving around. As you get closer, you’ll see the [bodies] of the fish,” explains director of marketing Samantha Fryberger. “It’s really cool.”

Aquarists are breeding the existing live coral, a slow process that will create a much larger display—taking the exhibit from about 500 gallons to over 2,000 gallons. Other new species will include spiny lumpsuckers, lookdown fish, a poison dart frog, clownfish, and garden eels, all of which will be arriving throughout the course of the renovations.

New uses for old spaces

Since its founding, aquarium officials have embraced the Powerhouse’s rich history, highlighting its steel girders, exposed brick walls, coal tunnels, and smokestacks.

“We love being in this historic building,” says Brown.

The Greater Cleveland Aquarium has embraced the rich history of the Powerhouse built in 1892 - photo Bob Perkoski
Designed by famed Cleveland architect John N. Richardson of Cudell & Richardson, the 1892 structure was originally built to manage the city’s electric streetcars, but it closed in 1920 with the rise of the automobile. The Powerhouse reclaimed its glory in the 1990s as an entertainment complex, with the aquarium moving into a portion of the 70,000-square-foot building in 2012.

Fryberger says the Powerhouse's history and its relation to the Cuyahoga River will lead to exhibits that illustrate how industry impacts animals and how they adapt (or don’t adapt). What is currently known as the Discovery Zone—where jellyfish dwell in what was once a smokestack—will become the transition into the Industry & Habitat gallery, highlighting the history of the Powerhouse building. The Industry and Habitat gallery will move into exhibits on biomimicry, set to be completed sometime early in 2019.

Behind the sea-nes

Upstairs, the open play area currently known as Exploration Station will soon become the Imagiquarium, where younger guests can test their skills at running the aquarium. “The people we attract often have very young children, so they did want an open area to let off steam,” explains Brown. “So we’re keeping that, but we’re going to make it more mission-driven.”

Props will be available in the space for kids to get hands-on experiences in almost every aspect of running the aquarium, from housekeeping to feeding the fish. There will be a pretend dive area, a food prep area, and a vet lab, says Fryberger.

“There will even be a giant wall that will look like the inside of a tank, and kids can go up and design it,” she explains. “Maybe they’ll add some coral, maybe they’ll put a fish in it, so it will feel like they’re creating a virtual tank.”

The new area aligns with Brown’s mission to make the aquarium a place to unplug and connect. “Everything is very tactile or experiential, versus sitting at a computer and playing a game,” Fryberger says.

Saving the spotted turtles

Since 2013, the aquarium has partnered with Wildlife4Ever Foundation and several local and statewide organizations to preserve the future of the spotted turtle population. Declining water quality, loss of habitat, illegal black-market poaching, and an increase in natural predators have dwindled the spotted turtle population, causing the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Wildlife Division to classify the species as needing “vigorous” protection. 


Spotted Turtle - courtesy of the Greater Cleveland Aquarium
“They are vulnerable because of habitat loss and pollution,” explains White, who says diminished wetlands from development has devastated the turtles’ habitats, while racoons, their biggest predators, have thrived. Additionally, because of their brightly colored yellow and orange spots, they are susceptible to poaching.

With that in mind, ODNR allowed the aquarium to exhibit just one turtle that was a pet and donated to the Ohio Lakes & Rivers gallery. Behind the scenes, however, the aquarium is raising spotted turtle hatchlings with Widlife4Ever and its Splash Fund.

White says the turtles raised at the aquarium are released into an undisclosed preserve, where the female egg-carrying turtles were collected. “This is the second year in release,” says White of the release planned for this summer. “Last year, we released six turtles.” The released groups are monitored in the preserve through ID chips and tracking software.

Another group is currently being raised at the aquarium. “We’re head-starting them,” explains White. “Wildlife4Ever collected females holding eggs, and we raise the hatchlings for several years until they are a certain size. It increases their survivorship in the wild.”

The new hatchling group will be a part of a new spotted turtle wall in the Ohio Lakes and Rivers gallery. Visitors can view the hatchlings in the exhibit on a monitor. “They’re quarantined because they’re being raised in [an environment] that’s more natural to their habitat,” explains Fryberger. “Before they’re released, they’re fed [food] that’s more natural to their habitat.”

The exhibit will also feature information about the program SPOTD, the collaborative effort to headstart the species. Conservation messages about saving the spotted turtles will also be posted, alongside similar messages throughout all of the galleries—with tips on what people can actively do to help.

“Every gallery will have a conservation message, like ‘How can I help the environment or help these animals so they can thrive?'” explains Brown.

Messages will include information and action points on fresh water shortages in the Asia & Indonesia gallery; plastic pollution in the Coastal Boardwalk gallery; and deforestation in the Rainforest Gallery.

Amid all the renovations and changes, the aquarium will remain open to the public. A staff member is required to standby in exhibits where work is occurring for safety and animal well-being, but most exhibits will remain open.

The Greater Cleveland Aquarium will offer free admission to all moms on Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 13, with the purchase of a child or adult general admission ticket. Children will be invited to create a hand-traced, fish-themed Mother’s Day card. The first 150 moms will receive a button, and by completing a scavenger hunt, have the chance to win an annual pass.


Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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