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Grand plans for John's Pass aquarium

MADEIRA BEACH — Not only are the name and location of the Pier Aquarium changing at the end of next year, almost everything on the inside will be different as well. Plans for the Secrets of the Sea Marine Exploration Center and Aquarium were unveiled recently at the new location at John's Pass Village. It will open on Dec. 12, 2012, at 12:12 p.m.

At six times the size of the current aquarium, the 12,500-square-foot facility will be on two floors next to Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. and Hooters. It will have 40 exhibits with touch screens, creatures to touch or other interactive experiences. The aquarium will focus on a theme of learning about marine science, how information from the sea is gathered and how it's used.

"We can start to engender a larger appreciation of the ocean and grow more stewards of the ocean," said Lari Johnson, who headed the aquarium's relocation committee. After 23 years at the Pier in downtown St. Petersburg, the aquarium decided to make the move to the beach because attendance was steadily dropping and the Pier is scheduled to be torn down and replaced with a different design.

"(Secrets of the Sea) will be a living research facility providing the public with direct contact with scientists, live experiments and marine discoveries found nowhere else," aquarium president and CEO Howard Rutherford said. Based on tourism projections, he expects 250,000 people will visit each year with an annual economic impact of $8 million to the community.

A 5-foot-wide globe will have satellite data showing weather patterns forming in the Atlantic Ocean and fish migration in the Pacific. An underwater microphone known as a "hydrophone" will sit in the water of the pass transmitting sounds of dolphins into the aquarium. Visitors can look at the underside of a live starfish under a microscope. A simulated thunderstorm will illustrate how salt is washed off the leaves of a mangrove and the important role the plant plays as a fish habitat.

"If you don't have enough mangroves you're not going to have enough grouper sandwiches," said Greg Belew, executive director of Hands On Inc., the company designing the exhibits. Visitors will get to vote for one of three projects proposed by the College of Marine Science at USF and the winner will receive a grant.

Another partnership with Pierre Cousteau, son of scientist Jacques Cousteau, is also in the works. Pierre Cousteau recently started a program called Cousteau Divers that encourages recreational divers to collect data scientists can use for research. He is considering St. Petersburg as the American headquarters for the group, which would bring divers and scientists to the Secrets of the Sea, according to Pier Aquarium board member Peter Betzer.

Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-9785 or kssmith@sptimes.com.

Grand plans for John's Pass aquarium 10/08/11 [Last modified: Friday, October 7, 2011 6:47pm]
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