Seattle's waterfront is a natural location for an aquarium, and proposals to build one go back many years. It wasn't until the Forward Thrust bond issue was approved in 1968 that funds were allocated for a true municipal aquarium. After a long struggle over the location, a site at piers 59, 60, and 61 on the central waterfront was finally approved in 1973. The Seattle Aquarium opened on May 20, 1977. Over the years, despite management turnover and delays in new exhibits during the 1980s, the Seattle Aquarium provided a recreational and educational resource for millions of visitors. Starting in 2006, a $41-million renovation project replaced the pilings under Pier 59 and rebuilt the pier's shed, which had been awarded historical-site status. Major new features were also added, including a 20-foot-high, 120,000-gallon floor-to-ceiling fish tank near the aquarium's new entrance on Alaskan Way. In 2010, management of the aquarium was transferred from the city to the Seattle Aquarium Society, a nonprofit. With work underway in 2014 to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct and rebuild the city's imperiled seawall, plans were in development to further improve the aquarium as part of the overall Seattle Waterfront Project.
A Municipal Aquarium for a Maritime City
Although the Seattle Aquarium had precursor institutions, such as the Seattle Frozen Fish Aquarium as well as the Seattle Marine Aquarium operated by Ted Griffin in the 1960s, the inception of Seattle's first true municipal aquarium was the Forward Thrust bond proposal in 1968. Forward Thrust was a package of a dozen separate bond measures, some countywide and others Seattle citywide. The countywide parks and recreation bond included $3 million to build a new aquarium. Seven of the 12 proposals passed on February 13, 1968, including the parks and recreation measure, which passed by about 65 percent. A proposal to build a stadium, (later called the Kingdome) also passed, while a rapid transit measure failed to get the necessary 60 percent majority.
Following the vote, a controversy arose over where to build the aquarium. Pacific Science Center director and future Governor Dixy Lee Ray (1914-1994), along with Liem Tuai, chair of the city council's Parks and Public Grounds Committee, vociferously supported a site at Meadow Point north of Golden Gardens Park in Ballard. Environmentalists opposed the site, arguing that it would destroy one of the last natural Puget Sound beaches inside Seattle.
Ray disputed this conclusion, calling it "sentimental emotionalism." She argued that:
"a properly designed aquarium at Meadow Point could restore the area to something like its natural state. Native dune grasses and shore plants could replace the scotch broom that grows there. Shore life could be restored in demonstration plots and pools. An aquarium at Golden Gardens would enhance the environment, not destroy it" ("Aquarium at Golden Garden OK'd").
The city council flipped back and forth on the issue, first passing a proposal to build the aquarium at the Ballard site on April 5, 1971. (Ironically, this was the same week in which the council agreed to acquire central waterfront property, including piers 59, 60, and 61, the eventual site of the aquarium, for a waterfront park.) Then, after an initiative opposing the Ballard site was filed, they passed a measure on December 17, 1971 prohibiting the location of the aquarium at that site. Other sites considered included Fort Lawton in Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood and several central waterfront locations. Lockheed shipyards even proposed to build the aquarium on a ship so it could be moved from location to location.
On July 3, 1972, the council proposed to build the aquarium at piers 60 and 61. Pier 59 was added to the site as a result of a proposal by parks superintendent Dave Towne, made on October 29, 1973. Towne argued that Pier 59 was the best place to build the aquarium because it wouldn't involve demolishing piers 60 and 61. (Piers 60 and 61 were nevertheless later taken down to provide room for aquarium expansion.)
The advance reviews of the aquarium building were highly favorable. On April 1, 1977, the American Consulting Engineers Council awarded the soon-to-be-opened Seattle Aquarium the Grand Conceptor Award for the highest achievement in engineering excellence in 1977.
Then, on May 20, 1977, the Seattle Aquarium held its grand opening for excited crowds, nearly a decade after the voters approved its initial financing. The cost of the aquarium had risen, but the City adjusted budgets to meet the cost. A total of 1,524 visitors toured the facility on opening day.
Thousands of fingerling salmon were released into Elliott Bay with the hope that they would return to the aquarium fish ladder to spawn. Inside the aquarium, visitors walked along ramps viewing sponges, jellyfish, snails, clams, and crabs, most of them native to Puget Sound. The glassed-in Aquarium Dome allowed visitors to sit on benches and watch fish watching them.
Sea otters performed tricks in return for horse clams, while an octopus clung to a pier. Many of the animals inhabited outside viewing areas in their natural habitat of Puget Sound, enabling visitors to watch sandpipers hunting for food and ducks nesting in grass.
Mayor Wes Uhlman said the aquarium "expresses the relationship we in Seattle have with the sea." Former city parks director Dave Towne called the grand opening "the biggest new show in town." In the first four months of operation, attendance at the aquarium exceeded expectations, totaling 353,000 visitors.
The Salmon Come Home
In September 1979, seven 2-year-old coho salmon returned to the Seattle Aquarium fish ladder to spawn. Those salmon were released in May 1978 in the hope of establishing a continuing salmon run at the aquarium, making it possible for viewers to study the spawning, incubation, and release of young salmon. One chinook salmon from an earlier release also made it up the ladder. The salmon, which find their way to their home stream by their sense of smell, were imprinted to their home aquarium with the use of the chemical morpholine.
The year 1979 also saw the June opening of the OmniRama Theater, an Imax theater that was one of about a half dozen in the world. The theater showed extra large film in a dome-like setting to give three-dimensional effects.
Trials and Errors
The early 1980s were a time of trial for the aquarium. Founding director Doug Kemper was forced out in June 1981 after disputes with the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department. Attendance was declining. Parks director Walter Hundley blamed "general management problems." Kemper, on the other hand, said the City was not giving enough support to new programs. He wanted to see the aquarium managed by a non-profit organization, as was the trend with many similar institutions, and led the effort to found the Seattle Aquarium Society, SEAS, in 1981.
After Kemper's departure, the City considered merging the aquarium and zoo under a single director. Critics said it would create a very odd looking beast. Eventually, Mayor Charles Royer (b. 1939) tabled the plan, and it finally disappeared.
Kemper's replacement, Ronald Glazier, left three-and-a-half years later under circumstances similar to those of his predecessor. At that point, attendance had been declining for four years, and Glazier said the lack of major new exhibits was the problem. The long-delayed Tropical Pacific exhibit, for example, had been a high priority when Glazier was hired, but a leaky main tank caused further delays.
Awards and Achievements
Still, the aquarium continued its mission as a recreational and educational resource. In 1982, The Seattle Aquarium received an Edward H. Bean Award from the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) for being the first to successfully breed a giant Pacific octopus in captivity.
On August 13, 1986, a $180,000 exhibit on the State of the [Puget] Sound opened officially at the Seattle Aquarium. The aquarium believed the exhibit, which explored the health of Puget Sound, was the first in the nation to focus on the local environment.
The exhibit, funded by city, state, federal, regional, and private organizations, featured stations where visitors could take water samples and lower traps into the water to catch marine life that lurks beneath Seattle's piers. Visitors could check Puget Sound's temperature, salt content, and tide level. Using a white marker known as a secchi disc, they could determine the water's cloudiness, a factor that changes with storms and the tide.
The aquarium also sponsored a number of off-site tours and cruises to expose visitors to aquatic life in the wild.
Issues of funding and management structure for the aquarium were recurrent themes in the late 1980s and 1990s. In August 1986, Seattle Mayor Charles Royer put forth an ambitious expansion plan for the aquarium. The plan was initially part of an overall waterfront improvement package. Eventually, however, it was split in two, with the other waterfront improvements going to a citywide vote and the aquarium rolled into a countywide bond measure.
On June 10, 1988, the King County Council voted unanimously to put an $85.8 million program to buy open space, acquire trails, and expand the Seattle Aquarium on the ballot in the September 20, 1988 primary. The measure would have provided $25.4 million for the aquarium, but it failed to get the required 60 percent majority, receiving only 50.8 percent of the vote. The waterfront improvement measure also went down in the citywide vote. The vote was a blow to efforts to provide a reliable source of funding and to upgrade the aquarium.
Still, the Seattle Aquarium continued to pursue its mission. A crowd of school children bid farewell on March 12, 1999, as Ursula, a 40-pound octopus, was released into Puget Sound to breed. Ursula set up housekeeping under the aquarium pier. Romance was in the water when a male octopus moved into a nearby den.
A New Century
Exhibits in the year 2000 included the Pacific Coral Reef; a giant Pacific octopus named the Shadow; the Sound to Mountains exhibit, which included river otters, an aquarium first; sea otters; Discovery Lab; and the Underwater Dome, in which visitors were surrounded by 400,000 gallons of water and myriad sea creatures. Off-site adventures included Eaglewatch 2000, Whalewatch 2000, scenic cruises, and kayak training and trips. The aquarium also undertook Washington's first-ever census survey of giant Pacific octopuses and rehabilitated two errant tropical sea turtles found off the Washington coast.
But financial problems continued. In February 2000 a bill that would have allowed Seattle residents to vote on a property-tax increase to pay for expansion of the aquarium (and the Woodland Park Zoo) died in the state legislature. This was followed a few months later by the resignation of the aquarium's director, Cindi Shiota, who left after 12 years in the post, saying that working 80-hour weeks had harmed her health. Bill Arntz, former chairman of the Seattle Board of Park Commissioners, was named acting director in July 2000.
During this rather unsettled period, the Seattle Aquarium Society and city officials continued to push for a new aquarium; preliminary architectural plans were developed, there was a tentative commitment of $21 million from the city council, and the society expressed the hope that it could raise the needed remainder from private contributions. But in rather typical Seattle fashion, debate took precedence over doing. Study followed study, delay followed delay, and little progress was made.
The aquarium, however, kept on with its mission. The rehabilitated sea turtles were successfully returned to the wild and a sea otter, Yaku, was born on April 19, 2000, the fifth such birth in what was the world's first successful captive-breeding program for the irresistibly cute aquatic mammals. The annual Salmon Homecoming Celebration was held as usual in September of that year, and the aquarium's popular education programs for young people continued. But the facility, now nearly 25 years old, was showing its age and requiring ever-increasing expenditures for maintenance and repair.
A Little Progress
Nearly everyone agreed that something needed to be done about the aquarium, but there was little agreement about what that was, or even precisely where it should happen. The aquarium society had wanted to build a new facility at Piers 62 and 63, but was opposed by groups seeking to preserve waterfront views and open space. The lack of agreement on something so basic as a site made fundraising nearly impossible. This fundamental impasse was resolved in February 2001 when the society agreed with a citizens advisory committee that the aquarium would remain sited around Piers 59, 60, and 61, most of which it already occupied. Instead of a brand-new aquarium at a different location, plans pivoted to an expanded and improved aquarium at its existing site.
This element of certainty was helpful, but it also rendered obsolete and unusable the prepared architectural plans for a new aquarium, and there were still plenty of disagreements and contrasting visions at play. One example -- as part of any plan, the aquarium wanted to move the pier shed it occupied on Pier 59 a little nearer to Waterfront Park. Other groups, however, were seeking historical-site recognition for the shed, which would very likely prevent such a move. As with most complex plans, the devil remained in the details -- siting, funding, design -- and the lack of consensus on these details remained a roadblock to meaningful progress.
Judging by contemporary press coverage, there things sat, and sat for years, at least as far as progress toward a new or greatly expanded aquarium was concerned. But it remained a popular attraction, celebrating its 25th anniversary with fanfare in 2002 and gradually improving and upgrading its permanent and special exhibits. Valuable educational and scientific programs also continued and expanded, steered by a dedicated staff aided by hundreds of volunteers. The Seattle Aquarium was a vibrant institution somewhat marooned in an inadequate space on a waterfront needing major repairs, but it remained an entertaining and informative destination for residents and tourists alike.
A Waterfront at Risk
The one thing advocates of a new aquarium did not need was to become part of a much larger debate, but the Nisqually earthquake of February 2001 made that inevitable. Damage caused by the quake disclosed just how catastrophic a larger quake could be, possibly toppling the aging Alaskan Way Viaduct and, worse yet, causing the collapse of the seawall that protected the waterfront from the waters of Elliott Bay.
Some of the seawall dated back as far as 1916, but the majority of it had been completed in the 1930s. Built largely of old-growth trees and 250,000 cubic yards of dirt, it had helped Seattle to become a major seaport, but its possible -- many thought inevitable -- failure was a threat that could not be ignored. There was not much sense in committing many tens of millions of dollars to an aquarium until it was decided what could be done to ensure that it, and most of the rest of the waterfront, would not be destroyed and inundated when the "big one," or possibly even another Nisqually-size earthquake, next shook the city.
Unsurprisingly, what to do about this perilous possibility set off another seemingly interminable series of studies, committees, hearings, recommendations, arguments, rebuttals, and delays. In April 2004, as part of an effort organized by the Seattle Department of Planning and Development, no fewer than 22 teams -- about 300 people in all -- presented competing plans for a new waterfront. Despite this surfeit of opinions, there was good news for the aquarium -- city officials insisted that every plan must include an expanded aquarium. It would not fall prey to waterfront redevelopment, but would become an integral part of it. In a massive, long-term project that, with the viaduct replacement, would cost billions, there was surely room for the relatively modest amounts needed to give one of the world's leading seaports one of the world's best aquariums.
With their hopes and plans largely captive to larger concerns, aquarium staff had to be content with improving what existed and continuing their efforts at entertainment, education, and research. In March 2005 Bill Arntz, acting director since 2000, retired and was replaced by John Braden, a veteran city official. That same month, a new sea-otter pup was welcomed, the first member of the third generation of lovable furballs to come from the aquarium's breeding program.
Later in 2005, the city and the Seattle Aquarium Society announced a $37.6 million (later raised to $41 million) makeover of the facility and the largest expansion since it opened in 1977. Under the plan, the city agreed to pay to replace the pier's 760 decrepit wooden pilings with 270 new ones made of cement-filled steel, expected to last 50 years, and build a new platform atop them. The society would fund a floor-to-ceiling, 20-foot-high, 120,000-gallon fish tank near the aquarium's new entrance on Alaskan Way. To be called "Window on Washington Waters," it would feature fish and other marine life native to Northwest waters. The aquarium would also pay to remodel the entire east end of the Pier 59 building, tearing down most of what was there, rebuilding it, and reinstalling the original, restored façade, which had indeed won historical-landmark status. The efforts were given a boost in June 2006, when the aquarium society received $1.5 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, its largest-ever contribution from a non-governmental source.
The work, which did not get underway until 2006, was characterized as just the first phase of a larger project, and while it may have not been exactly what everyone wanted, the perilous condition of Pier 59 made quick action necessary. And a half loaf was better than none; as an aquarium spokeswoman explained at the time, "uncertainty surrounding the seawall and replacement of the Alaskan Way Viaduct make it difficult to proceed with a major fund-raising campaign" ("Aquarium Set for Makeover"). This difficulty was highlighted in September 2006, when the Seattle City Council approved a $6.3 million loan to the aquarium, repayable in 10 years, to allow the renovation and expansion to be completed despite a fundraising shortfall.
New Features, New Management
The renovated and expanded portions of the Seattle Aquarium opened to the public on June 22, 2007, and featured, among other things, a new entrance hall, a cafe, an expanded gift shop, and an 18,000-square-foot auditorium space. The Window on Washington Waters addition was joined by another new exhibit titled "Crashing Waves" -- a 40-foot-long artificial-wave pool that held some of the aquarium's more durable starfish, anemones, and fish.
Older exhibits, including the ever-popular otters and the underwater viewing dome, were where they had always been, although somewhat spruced up. It was far from the ambitious plan for an entirely new aquarium on Piers 62 and 63 that had been killed by the overarching concerns raised by the Nisqually earthquake. But the improvements were significant, the crowds continued to come, and the aquarium remained in operational terms "just fine financially" ("Aquarium Shows Off New Views").
One other big change was soon to come. The partnership between the City of Seattle and the Seattle Aquarium Society that had operated the aquarium since the 1980s came to an end in 2010. In June of that year it was announced that the society would take over virtually all of the facility's operations, allowing the budget-stressed city relief from its obligations while leaving with it the legal ownership of the building exteriors and the piers on which they sat. Although the aquarium was paying its own way (covering $10.7 million in operating costs in 2009), the agreement allowed the city to shed peripheral responsibilities, such as IT support and contracting out the various third-party services the aquarium needed. Another consideration weighed in this decision -- private donors were hesitant to contribute to an operation so closely identified with city government, but more generous when only a nonprofit foundation was the beneficiary. Seventy-five fulltime parks-department employees who worked at the aquarium were given five years to transition to the foundation, but for the public the changes would be virtually invisible.
Planning for the Future
By 2011 the Washington State Department of Transportation had started work on a tunnel to replace the tottering viaduct (which is part of State Route 99) with a tunnel, a mammoth undertaking that was to be done mostly with state and federal highway funds. Tunnel boring began in 2013 but halted that December when the machine ran into problems; as of 2014 boring was supposed to resume in 2015 and be completed in 2017.
In a largely advisory referendum, Seattle voters had approved the tunnel in August 2011, although the issue of the Alaskan Way Seawall, which presented far greater potential dangers, remained unresolved. But in the November 2012 election, 77 percent of Seattle voters approved $290 million in general-obligation bonds to replace the only thing that prevented Puget Sound from reclaiming the waterfront, which had been built almost entirely on fill taken from the previous century's flattening of the city's terrain.
By 2013 construction was underway on Phase 1 of Seattle's Waterfront Plan under the direction of a newly created Seattle Office of the Waterfront. The seawall replacement was scheduled to be finished by 2016 and the entire project sometime in 2019, if things proceeded as hoped. Plans called for a plaza in front of the aquarium, connected to the Pike Place Market by a pedestrian overpass.
For its part, the Seattle Aquarium in 2011 prepared its own Strategic Plan to guide development through 2030. The plan had both aspirational and practical elements, but the aquarium's basic mission was simply stated: "Inspiring Conservation of Our Marine Environment" (Seattle Aquarium Strategic Plan, 2011-2030). Specific proposals included redeveloping the western (Elliott Bay) end of Pier 59 to open up views and accommodate new exhibits; upgrading the structures and updating the exhibits housed on Pier 60; and expanding the footprint of the aquarium south from Pier 59 to allow for more exhibits and accommodate greater attendance. The final configuration was kept flexible to ensure that the aquarium would blend seamlessly with the overall Waterfront Plan; it was scheduled to be finalized and presented to the public in 2015 or 2016.
By the Numbers
As of 2011, the Seattle Aquarium was the ninth largest in the United States, measured by attendance. Since its opening in 1977, more than 21 million visitors had passed through the aquarium's doors, including more than 800,000 in 2011 alone, approximately half of them residents of Washington. The strategic plan estimated that annual attendance would grow to 1.1 million by 2020 and 1.5 million by 2030.
Aquarium educational programs had drawn more than 1.6 million school children since 1977, including 40,000 in 2011. In partnership with the University of Washington and funded by the National Science Foundation, the aquarium is designated as one of 12 Centers for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence in the nation.
The aquarium's collection in 2011 included six major exhibits, organized around the creatures inhabiting different marine environments: Window on Washington Waters, Life on the Edge, Pacific Coral Reef, Puget Sound Fish and Dome Room, Puget Sound Orcas Family Activity Center, and Marine Mammals. Staff biologists conducted scientific studies on a variety of sea animals, including the giant Pacific octopus, sixgill shark, and northern sea otter.
A paid staff of 97 was supplemented by more than 1,000 volunteers in 2011, who donated in excess of 91,000 hours, a savings of nearly $2 million in payroll expense.
The aquarium each year trains 150 "Beach Naturalist" volunteers to visit local beaches during low-tide weekends and accompany families as they explore the marine environment. The octopus census, first conducted in 2000, has become an annual event carried out by aquarium biologists with the help of local divers.
What the Future Holds
Seattle's Watefront Plan represents one of the largest infrastructure projects in the city's history and will forever change the face it presents to the world. Without the viaduct, the central shoreline will be less cut off from the city's downtown core and more accessible to residents and tourists alike. The Seattle Aquarium will be an integral part of this massive redevelopment, with expansion ideas as outlined in its 2011 strategic plan. In the spring of 2014 it was announced that the Seattle Aquarium Society had hired a lead architect, Marc L’Italien, principal of the San Francisco-based firm EHDD, and an exhibit designer, Tom Hennes, founder/principal of the New York City-based firm Thinc, to develop those plans.
The aquarium's wish list included a 70-percent expansion that would provide room for new exhibits, additional educational facilities, and increased attendance. Contingent on funding, the first phase of construction, estimated to cost $100 million, would begin in 2020, when the city's new waterfront was scheduled to be substantially complete. In operation for 37 years as of 2014 and on firm financial footing, the aquarium was poised to remain a vibrant center of entertainment, education, and scientific study for years to come.