Adventure Aquarium to get revamp, including more penguins

Marine biologist Amy Haddock interacts with seals at the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, N.J., on Sept. 19, 2012. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Marine biologist Amy Haddock interacts with seals at the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, N.J., on Sept. 19, 2012. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 21, 2012

Outside the Adventure Aquarium in Camden, visitors marveled at penguins waddling over the ground, then quietly slipping into the water. Nearby, seals glided effortlessly through another tank, surfacing to eat fish offered by trainers.

The typical routines - regularly seen by crowds at the exhibits - will give way to major changes over the next few years as the Camden waterfront attraction undergoes the most expensive renovation since its privatization in 2005.

Preliminary plans call for an expansive new penguin exhibit that will cost millions of dollars and double the size of the current Penguin Island, officials said. The move is expected to let the aquarium increase its penguin population from 19 to more than 30.

At the same time, the facility's two harbor seals and three gray seals will be relocated - for the foreseeable future - to American Trail at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington, where they will be part of the seal and sea lion exhibit.

"People are looking for something new, and we want to give them the best possible experience," said Kevin Keppel, the aquarium's executive director. "We must evolve and grow to meet those expectations.

This project "is part of our long-term strategic plan," he said. "We're very bullish about the Adventure Aquarium, and want to grow it and improve the outdoor space."

The past year's attendance - calculated from May 2011 to last May - was greater than at any other time since the aquarium opened, officials said.

"We're up 20 percent over last year," said Keppel, who declined to release the number of tickets sold. "We've had more than six million visitors in the past seven years."

Attempting to add to those totals, the aquarium has invited the public to see additional seal programing, including shows and training sessions that allow guests to speak with biologists and learn more about the animals' move.

The Seal Shores exhibit - with Gunther, Kjya, Kara, Squeegee and Luke - will officially close Oct. 1.

"You guys are awesome! Sad to see you go. Miss you," wrote one well-wisher on a huge greeting card that offered "Best Fishes to Our Seals." The card covered a wall inside the aquarium.

Outside, visitors were checking out the penguins and seals.

"If there's a larger area, that might be more fun to watch," said Carol Kessler, 69, a Union County, N.J., resident touring the aquarium with her husband, Mike, 70.

An expanded outdoor exhibit "could encourage [visitors] to come back. I like the seals, but the penguins are good, too," said James Ohler, 27, of Lansdale.

"I like them both," added his fiancee, Shawna Helmick, 29, of Harleysville.

The seals' 170,000-gallon saltwater exhibit was built as part of the New Jersey State Aquarium in 1992 and will be replaced by the new construction.

The seal colony occupying that space will head this fall to the Smithsonian's state-of-the-art exhibit, which has two pools that mimic coastal waters. The animals' new home has a wave machine that keeps the water in constant motion, providing sensory stimulation.

"For two of our gray seals - Kara and Kjya - this trip will bring them full circle, as both were originally born at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park," Keppel said.

The penguins will remain at the Camden aquarium while the changes are being made.

No plans for the new exhibit have been drawn up, Keppel said. They could be a year in the making, and construction could last an additional two years.

"We have a limited outdoor footprint and a small seating area," he said. "We have to identify the size of the penguin habitat, but it will grow."

The aquarium has undergone massive changes since its opening 20 years ago.

The attraction - taken over by Steiner & Associates as a for-profit operation - reopened in 2005 after $53 millions of renovations. The new displays no longer concentrated on fish of the region but on exotic creatures from around the world, including various fish, birds, and even hippos.

This year, the aquarium unveiled its KidZone, where children can interact with animals and jump, climb and crawl through pop-up exhibits. In 2010, it opened a new Touch exhibit where visitors could touch and hand-feed stingrays.

"We're positioning ourselves for growth as we move forward," Keppel said. "The first step is freeing up some space."

That means the seals have to go - and their departure will be hard on the aquarium staff, which has grown attached to the animals.

"It's difficult for me and the team," said Michele Pagel, curator of birds and animals, who has worked at the aquarium for 15 years. Each seal "has a personality, individual quarks - and you get to know them."

"But everyone is rallying around the change and preparing the animals for the transition," she said. "The new penguin exhibit will be a good addition to the aquarium."

Besides, who says the seals won't return?

"We're never going to say we'll never bring the seals back," Keppel said. "They're on a long-term loan."

"There's no place to accommodate them for the foreseeable future," he said, "but the door is open somewhere down the road."


Contact Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.


 

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