Jay Hemdal has been the aquarium curator for the Toledo Zoo since 1989. Prior to that time, he worked for the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. He is a graduate of Eastern Michigan University and has written six books and close to 200 magazine articles on fish and aquariums. INTRODUCTIONOn the morning of March 27, 2015, several hundred people braved unseasonable bitter cold and snow flurries to attend the grand reopening of the Toledo Zoo Aquarium. The dedication speeches were cut short due to frigid weather and biting winds, and the mayor and zoo executive director used a giant pair of shark-shaped scissors to cut the ribbon. At first, the visitors rushed inside as fast as possible, if only to get out of the wind, but forward motion stopped due to wonderment as people entered the first gallery of new exhibits. When first opened in 1939, the Toledo Zoo Aquarium was the largest freshwater aquarium in the world, and it had remained one of the zoo’s most popular attractions for decades. But by the mid-2000s, the aquarium was both dated and in trouble. Originally constructed during the Great Depression as a Works Progress Administration project, it had been built to last with a beautiful exterior. At that time, the state-of-the-art exhibit galleries were set up in the fashion of an art museum. Visitors would walk down long hallways of similar-sized exhibits as if they were observing paintings. The exhibits were well crafted, fish care was exquisite (many of the fish that were there when I was in grad school are still in residence, only larger), but the interior felt dark and gloomy. It was like walking through a tunnel. And behind the scenes, it was far worse. The addition of saltwater exhibits during the 1970s had led to corrosion of not only life support systems but also the building itself. Most zoos would have likely closed a facility with that many problems, but the Toledo Zoo is unique. Long rated as one of the best zoos in the United States, it has strong [su_members message=”This content is for members only. Please login.”
login_url=”/membership/member-login/” class=””]community support; voters approved a tax levy in 2006 that supported the renovation and funded about 80% of the US$25.5 million dollar cost (yes, 25.5 million dollars!), with the rest coming from donations (some initial planning for the renovation actually started almost 15 years ago). The aquarium closed during 2012 for the reconstruction. The historic exterior was preserved, but the inside was gutted for structural repair, and a complete redesign of both display and support systems. The old exhibit was about seeing fish; the new design is about interacting with them.
The project architect was the same firm that designed the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and every exhibit was replaced. Total water volume increased nearly four-fold, from 46,000 to 178,000 gallons, and the largest exhibit increased nearly 12-fold, from 7,600 to 90,000 gallons. There was a slight reduction in freshwater diversity via reduced focus on common freshwater forms (some common species had appeared in multiple exhibits). However, there was an increase in the number of marine species (both fish and corals). The new facility supports about 3,700 organisms representing 50 freshwater and 150 marine species.The new architecture contains a key modern feature designed to enhance visitor experience. Where, in the past, nearly every exhibit was gallery style—where a visitor walked up to it and looked in—the new style allows visitors to see through the exhibits from multiple perspectives (a feature of nearly every modern aquarium), giving viewers a better appreciation for both volume and habitat. The renovation also resulted in a complete overhaul of life support systems (many which were tested extensively prior to demolition to verify effectiveness). One key finding was that drum filters were highly effective at maintaining water quality. They had not been used previously as a primary particulate removal system in any aquarium, but test results supported the zoo’s decision to adopt them. Extensive lighting tests were also undertaken to develop illumination strategies that maintained fish and coral health, allowed visitors to see the fish, and created aesthetic experiences such as light shimmering, all while being as energy efficient as possible. The renovation also resulted in a complete overhaul of life support systems (many which were tested extensively prior to demolition to verify effectiveness). One key finding was that drum filters were highly effective at maintaining water quality. They had not been used previously as a primary particulate removal system in any aquarium, but test results supported the zoo’s decision to adopt them. Extensive lighting tests were also undertaken to develop illumination strategies that maintained fish and coral health, allowed visitors to see the fish, and created aesthetic experiences such as light shimmering, all while being as energy efficient as possible. Virtually all the new exhibits are far more consistent ecologically with natural habitats. Hard and soft corals attack each other via alleopathy, so those species are housed in separate reef crest and lagoon habitats with non-coral grazing fish species. The Japanese spider crab Macrocheira kaempferi exhibit quadrupled in size and contains flat substrate with no other habitat features. This allows the animals to stretch out to their full size while deep blue lighting conveys the feel of deep water. And although perfect ecologically, potential monotony of the flat substrate is broken by spot illumination that allows visitors a close and detailed view whenever the animals are under a beam, creating a dimension of interest that heightens visitor interaction. And as with most exhibits, lighting was designed to prevent animals from seeing visitors so that natural behaviors would be the norm. I had envisioned a morning grand opening ceremony as sort of a solemn gathering of dignitaries and zoo staff. They were overshadowed by a much larger turnout of over a thousand people who were geeked to see some fish. By the time the ribbon was cut, a line of families with children had formed, stretching from the aquarium out to the entry gate, and it never stopped. Kids ditched their parents to crowd up to habitats that seemed to be designed with lower edges that were perfect for five year olds to lean against as they sought a closer view. The touch tanks were clearly one of the most popular new exhibits, and the microphone- equipped diver also attracted a huge crowd. The local media described the new facility quite accurately, calling it “jaw dropping,” but a headline entitled “Toledo Children Experience Fish Frenzy” would have been just as accurate. Although you would never know it, some of the exhibits are not yet in their final configuration, and the renovation process will continue during 2015. Some habitat tweaks will occur, and additional specimens will appear over the next few months. While the aquarium alone is worth a trip to the Toledo Zoo, I would be remiss if I did not point out that they have received accolades for their other collections and facilities. They are also active in many Species Survival Plans and have worked closely with local groups on conservation of wetlands and oak savannas. A visit here is worth the journey. The aquarium was a cool Great Depression era building that seemed to be working well. Why did you decide to undertake a renovation? While we had endeavored to maintain good quality public exhibits, behind the scenes the building’s infrastructure was in poor shape due to corrosion from saltwater and the length of time the building had been operating. Starting in the 1970s, saltwater exhibits were gradually added, replacing freshwater exhibits; until by 2010, about 30% of the exhibits were marine. The saltwater caused intrusion in the concrete, and the rebar rusted, causing spalling at various locations. Remedial repairs were made in 1998, but they were temporary in nature. Additionally, the new aquarium exhibits can be designed to be more engaging for our visitors than the old “museum case” exhibits of the 1930s. The original designs were based on art museums where visitors would move from painting to painting. The habitats were designed that way, and we knew there were better ways to be engaging and interesting. Plus, it was a way to get away from the “tunnel” feel of the long, dark corridors. What differences will visitors notice? The new aquarium is much more open, has a lighter feel, and is not as dark. There is roughly twice as much room for visitors and four times as much room for the animals—all in the samesized building. This was accomplished by converting unneeded workspace areas into public or exhibit spaces. The original entryway is being reopened. There will be panoramic exhibits, a new Gulf of Mexico tank, and an Amazonian flooded forest. Although it will feel brighter, the lighting is designed to reduce visibility of visitors to the fish. Not many people read lengthy graphic panels, so those have been reduced. What really works is to have a person there. The new automated systems create more time for keepers, so they can interact with visitors. A number of other educators will be stationed in the aquarium building to interpret our exhibits for visitors. We are also using new technology like videos, and the divers have microphones, so they can talk with visitors while in the tanks. We also have touch tanks. Our goal was to create more interaction. What differences will the curator notice? There will be many more marine species than before, and the upgraded life support systems will reduce water quality and disease issues. All life support systems are being replaced with upgraded technology. Total tank volume increased from 46,000 to 178,000 gallons, and we will have LED computer-regulated lighting for energy efficiency. We will be the first aquarium to rely primarily on drum filters as the primary water-clarifying device. What differences will the fish notice? The fish will have larger tanks, more room, cleaner water, better water quality, and better overall environments. Bigger water volumes confer stability and that is also beneficial. Are there new themes or biotopes that were not part of the original collection? We have three new biotopes that will feature fish from the tropical Pacific, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Lake Erie Islands. We also have a small Lake Victoria cichlid biotope that is important because of the program behind it. We have led the species survival plan for some of the imperiled endemic cichlids. That one is a placeholder for a larger behind the scenes propagation and conservation effort. There were some exhibits that visitors liked but had to come down. How did you deal with that? We had internal meetings and undertook visitor surveys to find better exhibits that replaced what had to go. One of the biggest surprises was how much people liked our old Styrofoam White Shark Carcharodon carcharias model. It was not a great model. It had been built by aquarium staff, and it was falling apart, but a lot of visitors asked about it. We ended up working with a local artist to replace it with a better model. Other popular exhibits that remained were also improved. Our Flashlight Fish exhibit is now bigger with more fish, and the darkened viewing area is larger too. We believe that the huge number of improvements truly offset anything that was lost. What did you do with all the fish during construction? Did any have to be rehomed at other facilities? This was trickier than you might think and was one of our biggest challenges. We built a climate-controlled fish room inside a warehouse across the street from the zoo. It was self-contained with an emergency generator, and we filled it with fiberglass tanks donated by the U.S. Geological Survey’s Great Lakes Science Center. That was enough to house about 25% of our 2,100 fish. We kept the endangered species, rare species, live corals, and giant clams—things you can’t get anymore. The rest of the animals were sent to other public aquariums. This was challenging because people wanted valuable fish but not species that were redundant in their collections. We did a lot of horse-trading and called in a lot favors but found homes for all. Those fish are not coming back because transport costs are so high, and it is better to keep them in their new homes. All that had to occur in a short time frame because there was a dropdead date when all power had to be cut off for the demolition. How did you handle such a daunting project? It was a US $25.5 million dollar project, and it was daunting. Our facilities guy, Rick Payeff, was the key; he was on site nearly every day and kept things moving forward. One thing that made it complex was that, while we wanted a renovation, there was absolute consensus that we wanted to keep the historic exterior and overall building footprint. The design team actually started six years ago. The project was funded locally by a Lucas County levy. What is the oldest fish in the aquarium? We have a Giant Gourami Osphronemus goramy that is about 35 years old. Our records prior to 1974 are not detailed, but we may have a gar that has been alive since the 1970s. We did have some fun surprises with that issue. When I first started as curator (over 25 years ago), one of our bird keepers donated some tropical freshwater fish to us, including two Asian loaches. These were added to an aquarium with many rocks in a huge pile. Each year at inventory time, my staff would confer to determine if anyone had seen the loaches. I had not seen them for a few years, so I took them off the inventory as “missing.” When we dismantled the tank, we found one of them alive and in perfect health. Tell us about your favorite new tank/habitat. Which one are you most geeked about? My favorite new exhibit is the shark and ray touch tank. It required more planning design time than almost any other exhibit because it had to be appropriate for visitors as well as animals. It has special design features, including a neat rim that keeps the animals in the tank to control the degree of physical contact, and it has an area where the fish can go if they do not wish to interact. What new partnerships or relationships developed as a result of this process? Because the Toledo Zoo Aquarium has been operating for over 75 years, many relationships with other organizations have developed during that time. However, the new aquarium has energized previous relationships: the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Wildlife funded our Invasives Species Exhibit; the Great Lakes Science Center (on Green Road) donated a number of used fiberglass holding tanks to us; and Bowling Green State University (BGSU) is now partnering with the Toledo Zoo on a variety of projects and new courses for their students. A number of BGSU students have participated in very intense internship programs in the fields of aquatic biology as well as aquarium design and construction.