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Seattle Aquarium

HistoryLink.org Essay 2203 : Printer-Friendly Format

Seattle, with its long maritime history, is a natural location for an aquarium. Yet, although proposals to build one go back many years, it wasn't until the Forward Thrust bond issue was approved on February 13, 1968, that funds were allocated for a true municipal aquarium. After a long struggle over the location of the aquarium involving such colorful figures as future Governor Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994) and Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman (b. 1935), a site at piers 59, 60, and 61 in the central waterfront was finally approved in 1973. The Seattle Aquarium opened on May 20, 1977, nearly a decade after voters approved it. Over the years, despite management turnover and delays in new exhibits during the 1980s, the Seattle Aquarium has provided a recreational and educational resource for millions of visitors, including school children, parents, researchers, and tourists. While still a city facility, the Aquarium is now supported by a growing Seattle Aquarium Society (SEAS), founded in 1981, which is exploring development of a larger, replacement facility.

A Municipal Aquarium for a Maritime City

Although the Seattle Aquarium had precursor institutions, such as the Seattle Frozen Fish Aquarium as well as the Seattle Marine Aquarium operated by Ted Griffin in the 1960s, the inception of Seattle's first true municipal aquarium was the Forward Thrust bond proposal in 1968. Forward Thrust was a package of a dozen separate bond measures, some countywide and others Seattle citywide. The countywide parks and recreation bond included $3 million to build a new aquarium. Seven of the 12 proposals passed on February 13, 1968, including the parks and recreation measure, which passed by about 65 percent. A proposal to build a stadium, (later called the Kingdome) also passed, while a rapid transit measure failed to get the necessary 60 percent majority.

Following the vote, a controversy arose over where to build the Aquarium. Pacific Science Center director and future Governor Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994), along with Liem Tuai, chair of the City Council's Parks and Public Grounds Committee, vociferously supported a site at Meadow Point north of Golden Gardens Park in Ballard. Environmentalists opposed the site, arguing that it would destroy one of the last natural Puget Sound beaches inside Seattle.

Ray disputed this conclusion, calling it "sentimental emotionalism." She argued that:

"a properly designed aquarium at Meadow Point could restore the area to something like its natural state. Native dune grasses and shore plants could replace the scotch broom that grows there. Shore life could be restored in demonstration plots and pools. An aquarium at Golden Gardens would enhance the environment, not destroy it" ("Aquarium at Golden Garden OK'd").

The City Council flipped back and forth on the issue, first passing a proposal to build the aquarium at the Ballard site on April 5, 1971. (Ironically, this was the same week in which the City Council agreed to acquire central waterfront property, including piers 59, 60, and 61, the eventual site of the aquarium, for a waterfront park.) Then, after an initiative opposing the Ballard site was filed, they passed a measure on December 17, 1971 prohibiting the location of the aquarium at that site. Other sites considered included Fort Lawton in Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood and several central waterfront locations. Lockheed shipyards even proposed to build the aquarium on a ship so it could be moved from location to location.

On July 3, 1972, the Council proposed to build the aquarium at piers 60 and 61. Pier 59 was added to the site as a result of a proposal by parks superintendent Dave Towne, made on October 29, 1973. Towne argued that Pier 59 was the best place to build the aquarium because it wouldn't involve demolishing piers 60 and 61. (Piers 60 and 61 were nevertheless later taken down to provide room for aquarium expansion.)

Engineering Excellence

The advance reviews of the aquarium building were highly favorable. On April 1, 1977, the American Consulting Engineers Council awarded the soon-to-be-opened Seattle Aquarium the Grand Conceptor Award for the highest achievement in engineering excellence in 1977.

Then, on May 20, 1977, the Seattle Aquarium held its grand opening for excited crowds, nearly a decade after the voters approved its initial financing. The cost of the aquarium had risen, but the City adjusted budgets to meet the cost. A total of 1,524 visitors toured the facility on opening day. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer proclaimed "the Age of Aquarium."

Visitors Entertain the Otters

Thousands of fingerling salmon were released into Elliott Bay with the hope that they would return to the aquarium fish ladder to spawn. Inside the aquarium, visitors walked along ramps viewing sponges, jellyfish, snails, clams, and crabs, most of them native to Puget Sound. The glassed-in Aquarium Dome allowed visitors to sit on benches and watch fish watching them.

Sea otters performed tricks in return for horse clams, while an octopus clung to a pier. Many of the animals inhabited outside viewing areas in their natural habitat of Puget Sound, enabling visitors to watch sandpipers hunting for food and ducks nesting in grass.

Mayor Wes Uhlman said the aquarium "expresses the relationship we in Seattle have with the sea." Former city parks director Dave Towne called the grand opening "the biggest new show in town." In the first four months of operation, attendance at the aquarium exceeded expectations, totaling 353,000 visitors.

The Salmon Come Home

The salmon did indeed return. In September 1979, seven 2-year-old coho salmon returned to the Seattle Aquarium fish ladder to spawn. Those salmon were released in May 1978 in the hope of establishing a continuing salmon run at the aquarium, making it possible for viewers to study the spawning, incubation, and release of young salmon. One chinook salmon from an earlier release also made it up the ladder. The salmon, which find their way to their home stream by their sense of smell, were imprinted to their home aquarium with the use of the chemical morpholine.

The year 1979 also saw the June opening of the OmniRama Theater, an Imax theater that was one of about a half dozen in the world. The theater showed extra large film in a dome-like setting to give three-dimensional effects.

Trials and Errors

The early 1980s were a time of trial for the aquarium. Founding director Doug Kemper was forced out in June 1981 after disputes with the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department. Attendance was declining. Parks director Walter Hundley blamed "general management problems." Kemper, on the other hand, said the City was not giving enough support to new programs. He wanted to see the aquarium managed by a non-profit organization, as was the trend with many similar institutions, and led the effort to found the Seattle Aquarium Society, SEAS, in 1981.

After Kemper's departure, the City considered merging the aquarium and zoo under a single director. Critics said it would create a very odd looking beast. Eventually, Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939) tabled the plan, and it finally disappeared.

Kemper's replacement, Ronald Glazier, left three-and-a-half years later under circumstances similar to those of his predecessor. At that point, attendance had been declining for four years, and Glazier said the lack of major new exhibits was the problem. The long-delayed Tropical Pacific exhibit, for example, had been a high priority when Glazier was hired, but a leaky main tank caused further delays.

Awards and Achievements

Still, the aquarium continued its mission as a recreational and educational resource. In 1982, The Seattle Aquarium received an Edward H. Bean Award from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) for being the first to successfully breed a giant Pacific octopus in captivity.

On August 13, 1986, a $180,000 exhibit on the State of the [Puget] Sound opened officially at the Seattle Aquarium. The aquarium believed the exhibit, which explored the health of Puget Sound, was the first in the nation to focus on the local environment.

The exhibit, funded by city, state, federal, regional, and private organizations, featured stations where visitors could take water samples and lower traps into the water to catch marine life that lurks beneath Seattle's piers. Visitors could check Puget Sound's temperature, salt content, and tide level. Using a white marker known as a secchi disc, they could determine the water's cloudiness, a factor that changes with storms and the tide.

The aquarium also sponsored a number of off-site tours and cruises to expose visitors to aquatic life in the wild.

Current Conundrums

The issues of funding and management structure for the aquarium have been recurrent themes in the late 1980s and 1990s. In August 1986, Seattle Mayor Charles Royer put forth an ambitious expansion plan for the aquarium. The plan was initially part of an overall waterfront improvement package. Eventually, however, it was split in two, with the other waterfront improvements going to a citywide vote and the aquarium rolled into a countywide bond measure.

On June 10, 1988, the King County Council voted unanimously to put an $85.8 million program to buy open space, acquire trails, and expand the Seattle Aquarium on the ballot in the September 20, 1988 primary. The measure would have provided $25.4 million for the aquarium, but it failed to get the required 60 percent majority. It received 50.8 percent of the vote. The waterfront improvement measure also went down in the citywide vote.

The vote was a blow to efforts to provide a reliable source of funding and to upgrade the aquarium. Later, in the 1990s and in 2000, new solutions were proposed. Proposals to allow Seattle to create a Municipal Parks District or to vote on a property tax increase for the aquarium and the Woodland Park Zoo failed to pass through the legislature.

Romance in the Water

Still, the Seattle Aquarium continues to pursue its mission. A crowd of school children bid farewell on March 12, 1999, as Ursula, a 40-pound octopus, was released into Puget Sound to breed. Ursula set up housekeeping under the aquarium pier. Romance was in the water when a male octopus moved into a nearby den.

Exhibits in the year 2000 include the Pacific Coral Reef; The Shadow, a Pacific giant octopus; the Sound to Mountains exhibit, including an aquarium first with river otters; sea otters; Discovery Lab; and the Underwater Dome, in which visitors are surrounded by 400,000 gallons of water and myriad sea creatures. Off site adventures include Eaglewatch 2000, Whalewatch 2000, scenic cruises, and kayak training and trips.

Sources:
Bill Sieverling, "The Anatomy of Thrust Vote," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, February 15, 1968, p. 1; Bill Sieverling, "Stadium Wins, Transit Loses," Ibid., February 14, 1968; Mike Conant, "Mayor Sees Tragic Loss in Rapid Transit Defeat," Ibid., February 15, 1968; "The Triumph of Forward Thrust," Ibid., February 15, 1968; "Aquarium at Golden Garden OK'd," The Seattle Times, April 6, 1971, p. A-21; Don Page, "Dr. Ray Backs Aquarium Site," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 2, 1971, p. 15; Michael J. Parks, "Support Lost for Ballard Aquarium Site," Ibid., April 1, 1971, p. E-15; Sam R. Sperry, "Council Votes to Bar Aquarium at Golden Gardens Park Site," The Seattle Times, December 17, 1971, p. A-1; "Aquarium Petition Qualifies," Ibid., December 1, 1971, p. B-8; Sam R. Sperry, "Council Votes to Bar Aquarium at Golden Gardens Park Site," Ibid., December 17, 1971, p. A-1; Sam R. Sperry, "Aquarium to be Built at Piers 60 and 61," Ibid., July 4, 1972, p. A-10; "Pier 59 Now Favored for Aquarium," Ibid., October 29, 1973, p. B-7; "Top Award for Aquarium," Ibid., April 3, 1977, p. C-9; Maribeth Morris, "The Age of Aquarium," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, May 21, 1977, p. A-1; "1,524 Visit Aquarium on Opening Day," The Seattle Times, May 22, 1977, p. A-7; "More Than Predicted Visit New Aquarium," Ibid., September 23, 1977; Hill Williams, Hill Williams, "Salmon Splash Their Way Home to Aquarium; Experiment Works," Ibid., September 15, 1979, p. A-1; "Aquarium Exhibit Gives Feel for Marine Health," Ibid., August 14, 1986, p. C-1; John Hartl, "Pier 59's OmniRama Theater Eclipses Cinerama," Ibid., September 15, 1979, p. A-1; Hill Williams, "Revenue Loss: Aquarium Seeking New Director," Ibid., June 6, 1981, p. D-12; Joni Balter, "Waterfront Tab Gets Bigger," Ibid., August 14, 1986, p. E-1; Duff Wilson, "Seattle Aquarium Director Resigns," Ibid., November 10, 1984, p. A-3; Bob Lane, "County puts bond issue on ballot," Ibid., June 21, 1988, p. B-2; Bob Lane and Joni Balter, "A Big `No' from Voters," Ibid., September 21, 1988, p. B-9; Dan Coughlin, "Little Chance of New Vote on County Bonds to Buy Open Spaces," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, September 22, 1988, p. B-1.


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This essay made possible by:
Seattle Aquarium Society (SEAS)


Seattle Aquarium, 2001
Photo by David Wilma


The Seattle Aquarium, August 2002
HistoryLink.org Photo by Priscilla Long


The private Seattle Marine Aquarium displayed captive wild Orca until federal protections were enacted.
Courtesy Paul Dorpat


Waterfront Park (1975), Seattle
Photo by Frank Shaw, Courtesy Paul Dorpat


Marine biologist Dixy Lee Ray (center) and Seattle Mayor Wes Uhlman (right) sparred over the Aquarium's location
Courtesy Paul Dorpat


Seattle Aquarium's "undersea" dome nears completion in 1977
Courtesy Paul Dorpat


Seattle Aquarium's undersea dome actually stands above Puget Sound
Courtesy SEAS


Sea otters have proved to be the Seattle Aquarium's most beloved residents
Courtesy SEAS


Although frightening to some (especially crabs), Puget Sound's shy, intelligent Giant Pacific Octopus is a featured species at the Seattle Aquarium
Courtesy SEAS


 
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