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Florida Aquarium notches best attendance since the year it opened

In 1995, 992,000 visitors went through the doors at the then-brand new aquarium. Last year, the number was 841,424, the most in the past 24 years.

TAMPA — Attendance at the Florida Aquarium rose 5 percent over the past 12 months, topping 841,000, the most in more than two decades.

Some changes have driven that growth, aquarium president and chief executive officer Roger Germann said Monday.

One is the addition of more things to see and do. The aquarium’s new Moon Bay pools give guests a chance to touch a non-stinging species of jellyfish — only the fourth exhibit in North America where visitors can do that.

“The last several years, and especially this last year, we invested in the aquarium experience,” said Germann, who has run the aquarium since June 2017. “As we look to the future, we’re going to try to look at how do we invest in unique experiences."

Similarly, it helped to re-open the aquarium’s second-largest exhibit, the 100,000-gallon Heart of the Sea, which showcases sea turtles, coral and sharks. And the aquarium rounded out its population of more than 14,000 aquatic and terrestrial animals with the additions of native Florida animals such as parrotfish, pelicans, longnose gar and juvenile alligators.

At the same time, a sharpened focus on conservation — “what the Florida Aquarium stands for,” Germann said — also paid off.

“People are really in tune with that,” he said. “They expect organizations like ours to be actually rolling up our sleeves and doing the important work to save wildlife, not only around the world, but even more so here in the Tampa Bay region.”

This spring, the aquarium opened a new 19,000-square-foot Sea Turtle Rehabilitation Center in Apollo Beach. The $4.1 million center features a surgery center and five pools. At 11 feet, the deepest of them can show whether a recovering turtle can dive for food before being released back into the wild. Since it opened, nine endangered sea turtles have been rehabilitated enough to be returned to the sea.

This summer, scientists working with the aquarium announced a first-of-its-kind breakthrough: They got Atlantic Ocean corals threatened by climate change to spawn in a lab.

RELATED: Scientists coax imperiled Florida coral to spawn in a lab for the first time

Meanwhile, the neighborhood around the aquarium is growing up, too, with the maturation of the Channel District, the rise of Water Street Tampa and the growth of Port Tampa Bay’s cruise ship business, which now tops 1 million passengers a year.

“We are helping each other out,” Germann said of the aquarium’s collaboration with Sparkman Wharf at Water Street Tampa. “We’re figuring out this synergistic way that we help each other to grow. I’m excited about what’s going to happen over here in the southeast section of the downtown Tampa area.”

In 1995, the year the aquarium opened, it got 992,000 visitors — well below the 1.8 million that had been projected when Tampa officials agreed to support its construction in the early 1990s.

That makes the attendance of 841,424 this past year — the aquarium’s fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 to Sept. 30 — the second highest in the aquarium’s history. Add to that the aquarium’s offsite programs and stingray touch tanks at Tropicana Field and the manatee-viewing area in Apollo Beach, and the number of local contacts tops 1 million.

“An incredible milestone,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said in a statement released through the aquarium. “It’s deeply gratifying and exciting that the community is rediscovering the Florida Aquarium in greater numbers.”