Puffins are flying into Tampa as part of the Florida Aquarium’s largest expansion ever.
The aquarium on Tuesday announced a $40 million expansion, its largest since opening in 1995, that will include new habitats for puffins, sea lions and African penguins. The puffin exhibit will be in a “rugged coast” gallery on the second floor in the atrium, while the sea lion and penguin exhibits will be outside.
While the aquarium already has African penguins, and sea lions are on display at Florida aquariums including SeaWorld Orlando and the Miami Seaquarium, this will be the only puffin habitat in Florida, and the first since SeaWorld ended its puffin exhibit several years ago.
“We’re going to push to redefine what a public aquarium in a world-class community is about,” aquarium CEO Roger Germann said. “That’s why you’ll see size, you’ll see scale, you’ll see animals that have never been seen here before.”
Construction is expected to begin early next year and will continue through summer 2025. Guests can expect some closures during the build-out, including the outdoor splash pad as the sea lion and penguin exhibits come together.
The expansion’s price tag is nearly half that of the aquarium itself, which cost more than $84 million. Its most recent major expansion was a $15 million multiyear initiative announced in 2011 that included a new splash pad, touch tank and event center.
Germann said the project will be financed through the aquarium’s reserves, private donations and public funding at the local, state and federal level. Details on fundraising and other campaigns will be announced “sooner than later,” he said.
“We’ll sit down and talk with everybody about where’s the best way to invest folks’ donations or taxpayer funds,” he said. “Now the journey begins. We know we’ve got enough commitments and our own money to get this started.”
The aquarium will also convert its second-floor ballroom into a rotating special exhibit gallery, opening next summer. That’s space that most aquarium guests never saw, Germann said, and it made sense to open it up for new purposes.
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“It is good space that will allow us to bring in new animals on a rotating basis, tell new stories, and be able to connect people differently,” Germann said. “With limited real estate at the aquarium, we’re dealing with the current footprint, it was easier and more advantageous to us to convert space rather than add on.”
After a sharp drop in attendance early in the pandemic, the aquarium saw revenues of $17.4 million in its most recent fiscal year, which ended in September 2021.
Germann acknowledged some potential variability in the cost and construction timeline due to ongoing global supply chain and labor challenges.
“We feel really good that that $40 million has some cost buffers,” he said. “We’ve got enough commitments and funding secured at the moment that allowed us to announce today, and we are very confident that we will be on budget and on time and everything will be open by 2025, fully paid off.”