Deep Blue KC: Expansive new aquarium coming to KC Zoo after 10 years of development

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An artistic rendering of the new KC Zoo aquarium. // Courtesy image

A new aquarium is opening soon as part of the Kansas City Zoo experience, a project which has been 10 years in the making, according to KC Zoo Executive Director and CEO Sean Putney. Starting September 1, zoo visitors will be able to walk through the immersive sea life habitat at no additional charge.

“There are 34 exhibits in the entire aquarium, and we think it hits on quite a few different aspects of the ocean,” says Putney. “And, of course, we will have all sorts of conservation and educational messages, too.”

The zoo prioritizes ethically sourcing and caring for the wildlife that will be living in the aquarium, with their ultimate goals being education and conservation. 

“We think, number one, it’s important to be able to talk about another niche out there,” Putney says. “We don’t have a lot of aquatic places here at the Zoo, so we felt like being able to talk about the oceans was a very important part of what we could do for the public. Because, let’s face it, there are some folks who may never get to see an ocean. And we feel it’s our responsibility to give them that message. And why—even though we’re about as far away from an ocean as you could get here in the United States—it’s still important to us here in Kansas City.

“The animals are sourced several different ways,” Putney says. “We’re providing a rehab place for animals that are actually owned by the government. For example, our sea otters and our sea turtles are owned by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and they’ve had injuries or stranding events, and they were deemed non-releasable. 

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An artistic rendering of the new KC Zoo aquarium. // Courtesy image

“There are really only a couple of options [for these animals],” Putney continues. “They could stay at the rehab facility, which takes up space for animals that they might be able to rehab and return to the wild, or the sad part would be for them to be euthanized. Or they can come here and be spokes-animals for their species.”

The wildlife in the aquarium will be cared for by a team of scientists who will spend their days testing water chemistry, feeding the fish and sea creatures, and cleaning tanks, according to Putney. He also says the aquarium will be implementing a volunteer dive program, which has proven popular at other aquariums across the country.

“It’s beneficial to both sides of things,” Putney says of the volunteer dive program. “People will be able to dive with animals that they might not get to dive with on a regular basis, but also help us out with keeping the tanks clean for the guests to be able to see.”

The aquarium is strategically built in the KC Zoo’s “valley,” between the penguin and elephant exhibits. Putney says this location was chosen for the aquarium because it required the least amount of digging. The team knew they wanted the aquarium to be an immersive “downhill” experience as visitors proceed through it, with immersion beginning before visitors even walk inside.

“We feel like the experience starts on the outside,” says Putney. “There’s a small courtyard that we hope people will utilize to rest their bodies.”

Then, visitors enter the aquarium through a vestibule displaying plaques that thank the donors who made the project possible.

“The upper portion of the aquarium is dedicated to animals that live around the shoreline, so very shallow waters where ocean and land interface,” says Putney. “We’ve got five tanks in that area. One is what we call a ‘crash tank.’ It’s a wave generator. So, it feels like you’re right amongst the rocks on a beach. You go through some mangrove swamps, and we have a couple of beach exhibits. And then as you continue to go on this journey, you should physically feel like you’re getting deeper [in the waters] as you’re going downhill.”

The architects of the aquarium made sure this journey into the deep blue is accessible for all. 

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An artistic rendering of the new KC Zoo aquarium. // Courtesy image

“There is no tank in this aquarium that is more than 24 inches off the ground, so kids who are in strollers or wagons or wheelchairs are able to get the same view as anybody else,” says Putney. “We also have adult changing tables for parents who have children who are older but still need some help,” Putney continues. “That’s the second place in the zoo now addressing that. We have a mothering room in the aquarium too, which is the third place in the zoo where moms can privately breastfeed their kids if they so choose.”

It was also important to the designers behind the aquarium that many different habitats from around the world were represented with the wildlife featured. Putney describes some of the critters that will be available for viewing: 

“You’ll go by the lagoon tank, which will feature many animals from the Caribbean, which are very brightly colored,” says Putney. “We also have some jewel tanks—smaller tanks that are less than a few hundred gallons, and that allows us to have some animals that might not do well in a bigger environment or where people will be able to see them better. We have things like garden eels and flat fish and pipe fish, and sea horses in smaller tanks along that journey. We also have a 10,000-gallon living reef which will have live coral in there, and right about that same time, you’ll be walking underneath a schooling fish tank that is over your head. Then you get to our 350,000-gallon shark tank. I say shark tank, but the reality is a reef tank with sharks as the main characters, with plenty of supporting cast in there as well.”

The conclusion of the experience leads visitors back up and out after their deep-sea dive. Putney lights up about the details of the final exhibit in the aquarium.

“You work your way back up to the shoreline again, and you’ll see animals like moray eels, giant Pacific octopuses, lobsters, and cuttlefish,” says Putney.

Good news: Fish called monkeyface pricklebacks can also be found.

“And then, as you hit the cold-water reef at the very end, you’ll see sea otters,” Putney says. “And we have a touch tank at the end, which will allow you to see animals up close and feel them.”

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An artistic rendering of the new KC Zoo aquarium. // Courtesy image

Putney says the aquarium project is the most expensive that the KC Zoo has ever undertaken at $77 million, with $62 million in construction costs, but he believes the development costs will be worth it not only financially but also because of the education and joy that the aquarium will bring to the metro. 

Putney also hopes that Kansas Citians will enjoy renting out the aquarium for private events such as weddings, bar mitzvahs, family reunions, or corporate outings.

“Even though this is the most expensive thing we’ve ever done, to me, it is just one more step to make the best zoo we can for the folks here in Kansas City and the surrounding areas,” Putney says. “We hope that this will allow us to continue to create more and more habitats for people to explore, have fun, and also educate themselves about conservation of animals and the spaces they live in around the world.”

The KC Zoo expects the lines for the aquarium to be quite long on their opening weekend and asks for patrons to kindly be patient when waiting for their turns to observe the sea life as the doors finally open.  

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