Cleveland Aquarium Makes Splash in Flats

February 22nd, 2012  |  Published in Stage and Street

By Pete Roche

The Greater Cleveland Aquarium opened its doors three weeks ago with a water-and-balloon dominated celebration whose guests included Mayor Frank Jackson, Councilmen Martin Sweeney and Joe Cimperman, and representatives from corporate sponsors FirstEnergy and Ampco Parking.

Yes, the old Powerhouse at Nautica Entertainment Complex is teeming with life once again.  Only now there are just as many fish as people occupying the Flats’ west bank on any given night.  The brick-laden landmark that once provided electricity for Cleveland’s streetcars and later housed popular evening destinations like Rock Bottom Brewery, Howl at the Moon, and Tommy’s was gutted in 2010 to make room for the state-of-the-art education-through-entertainment facility, whose walk-through aquariums are the first of its kind in the continental U.S.  The 70,000 square foot attraction became something of a labor of love for architects and engineers at Auckland’s Marinescape NZ Unlimited, who completed similar Poseidon-esque projects recently in Turkey and China.

Retrofitted displays include thirty-five tanks with samples of the diverse marine life found all over the world, with the piece de resistance being Marinescape’s 500,000 gallon SeaTube, which allows visitors to walk beneath stingrays and sharks.  Remember the Undersea Kingdom in Jaws III?  It’s like that—only the sharks are real, and the transparent tube doesn’t leak.  Other exhibition areas feature animal occupants hailing from such aquatic abodes as the Caribbean, the Florida Keys, Coastal, and the Everglades.  Plants and animals from Ohio’s own rivers and lakes are also on view, complementing the longstanding exhibits at Cleveland Metroparks’ Nature Centers (hello, Dunkleosteous!).

Several primary tanks showcase species from various reef communities.  Here you’ll find groupers, eels, and a multitude of oddly-shaped paraphyletics with amusing names like Rooster Hogfish, Dusky Squirrelfish, and Longsnout Butterly.  The pelagic (or open-sea) tanks house sleek, fleet-finned Blue Runners and Threadfin Herring, while the elasmobranch exhibit contains cartilaginous sea critters like skates, rays—and yes, sharks (Sandbar, Blacknose, Nurse, and Sand Tiger).

If your kids get squeamish at the thought of fifteen toothy ocean predators coasting over and alongside them through the plexiglass, talk up the Aquarium’s smaller (but equally cool) residents.  Alligators, piranha, and seahorses will give junior a peek at extraordinary life in a brighter, less claustrophobic setting.  Heck, practically the entire anemone-dwelling cast of Finding Nemo is here, including Marlin (Orange Clownfish) and Dory (Regal Blue Tang).  But be warned:  The only way out of the Aquarium is through the 145-foot shark-infested SeaTube (Muahahaha!).  Ah, but mom and dad can reward kids for their bravery with some wallet-dipping at the Gift Shop.

Rather than disturb the industrial-but-open feng shui at the Powerhouse, Aquarium designers worked around preexisting fixtures, leaving the distinctive mortar archways and winding egresses intact.  One placard invites guests to “Look Up!” through an overhead window for a bug’s-eye-view of the familiar Powerhouse chimney.  Elsewhere, traditional fish tanks are built into the walls, where translucent faceplates allow maximum visibility of candy-colored fish, exotic sea creatures, and an array of vegetation.  But the alcoves are dotted with many stand-alone cylindrical displays that offer a 360 degree look at the action. Visitors are encouraged to get up close and personal with starfish, crabs, and rays at the sprawling Touch Tank, where neoprene-clad aquarium staffer answer questions for the curious.  Ever wanted to hold a Bahama Starfish or Sea Cucumber, or have a stare-down with a Spiny Lobster or Pin Cushion Urchin?  Now’s your chance.

The $33 million Greater Cleveland Aquarium was funded with a generous investment by Nautica Phase 2 Limited Partnership, via Jacobs Entertaiment, and with sizeable loans from both the City of Cleveland and Marinescape.  FirstEnergy Corp. also provides financial support, along with Ampco, the parking lot operator for Nautica.  The Aquarium anticipates receiving nearly a half-million visitors in the next calendar year, which would inject between $10-25 million into the local economy, starting with the nearby restaurants and concert venue.

Aquarium admission ($21.95 for adults, $15.95 for kids 2-12) seems steep, but the asking price is on par with similar marine attractions around the globe.  Families may consider buying annual passes, which essentially pay for themselves after two or three visits—and which allow holders to bypass the ticket line.  The place was crowded when this writer took his kids down for a look-see, and that was on a snowy Saturday afternoon.

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