How Water Elements Work at Zoos and Aquariums

By Genie Davis

Water features are an important aspect of zoos and aquariums nationwide. Whether fountains, splash areas, tide pools, or other elements, keeping things wet adds another element to the visitor experience.

At the Alaska Zoo, in Anchorage, Education Director Stephanie Hartman said the zoo must minimize water features designed for purely visual aesthetic because of the winter temperatures in the state. “We don’t even have water fountains,” she said. “But saying that, water features are used in animal habitats for enrichment. And Campbell Creek’s South Fork runs through the zoo. Our trumpeter swans swim along it and guests can observe the stream.”

She added that “There have been pond and stream restorations all through the city of Anchorage and here to restore the natural flow. And we are building up a moose habitat along the creek that is also a part of the zoo. Guests can enjoy these natural water features.” Zoo visitation averages 180,000 to 200,000 per year; she notes that being an outdoor zoo in Alaska tempers visitation depending on the weather.

Monterey Bay Aquarium photograph subjects look up at the attraction’s Wave Crash water feature. This walk-through tunnel is among the aquarium’s most popular family picture spots, according to the vice president of guest experience. Photo credit © Monterey Bay Aquarium.

At the Phoenix Zoo, in Phoenix, Ariz., Communications Director Linda Hardwick said the zoo has two interactive water elements for guests. “We have two splash pad water play areas and playgrounds. There’s Leapin’ Lagoon for little kids, and Yakulla Caverns for kids ages 5 and older which allows children to walk through a cavern as well as enjoy water play. Both are open March through October.” Additionally, Hardwick said the zoo features misting systems for guests, to keep them cool despite the hot climate of Phoenix. The zoo has no new water elements planned at this time.

Hardwick said attendance at the Phoenix Zoo has been flat this year. “I think that’s due in part to the fact that there is a lot of competition in the valley. We’re a major market city, and we work well with many other attractions, but there are many things for residents and visitors to do in the area. We’ve been around 60 years and we continue to do really well, and I think it’s great that there are so many things to see and do in the area.”
Also in Phoenix, at the Wildlife World Zoo and Aquarium, Zoo Director Mickey Ollson has a wide range of water features both within exhibits and for guests to participate in and enjoy.

“We have fifteen features such as waterfalls within the zoo itself; we feel it’s especially important because of our warm climate here in Phoenix to include those features. Any time you can hear or see the water falling, see the stream running through the aviary area and cross over it on a boardwalk, listen to its burbling, it has a cooling effect on the environment that’s important to both the animals and visitors.”

Visitors can also enjoy a log flume amusement ride, which Ollson said is located between the aquarium and the zoo. “You get in a log boat which seats four, and the boat takes you around the zoo’s two monkey islands with water features on them. Then you go through the aquarium, beneath an acrylic tunnel with South Pacific reef fish all around you in a 180-degree view,” he described. “Then you go out of the tunnel, floating past birds, and finally climb 35-feet-high, up a ramp with a view of Monkey Island, splashing down at 45 degrees into the runout pool. People love it when the water splashes up at the end of the 3 to 4-minute ride. Some kids will get off the boat and immediately get back on,” he said.

Ollson is planning new water elements for the park, opening in January. “We plan to open a five-acre addition to our safari park that will include monkey islands with a large 120-foot by 60-foot pond, fan palms and waterfalls for a tropical effect.”

The Living Coast is located on an active marsh that contains a shore bird exhibit.

For Ollson, visitation is up this year. “This spring, which is our main season, we set new records for our busiest ever. I think it’s a combination of things: the economy seems up, and we open new exhibits each year for the spring season. Adding something new every year is a great draw; we have many repeat visitors who come to see the new animals or new babies or attractions every year.”

David Rosenberg, vice president of guest experience for the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., said among the water features for guests at the aquarium are a Wildlife Viewing Station located on the aquarium’s back deck. “Guests can use our telescopes and binoculars to spot the action in Monterey Bay,” he explained. “Our Rocky Shore and Kelp Forest Touch Pools are where guests can have a hands-on experience with crabs, sea stars, kelp and more. And our Wave Crash is a walk-through tunnel, one of the most popular family photo spots in the aquarium.” He said this exhibit “pumps about 600 gallons of water and crashes every 30 seconds. That’s more than 500,000 gallons per eight-hour day.” Rosenberg also cited a performance on and around the water in the aquarium’s Tide Pool Theater. Turning the Tide: The Story of Monterey Bay is performed three times daily in the summer. The show describes people who immigrated to Monterey to harvest from the bay’s abundant waters.

As to new water elements for the future, he mentioned no specific plans, but stressed “The ocean is our biggest exhibit, and interpreters help visitors see whales, dolphins, otters and more as they pass by the decks of the aquarium.  Every day is different and new.” According to Rosenberg,  
“By viewing the exhibits at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, visitors have the opportunity to catch a glimpse into how the ocean looks, and become more inspired to take action to conserve it.”     

Regarding attendance, he said, “Monterey Bay Aquarium enjoys an average attendance of around two million guests each year,” making it a major attraction year in and year out. 

A view of Turtle Lagoon at The Living Coast in San Diego, Calif. The facility is fundraising to add a water feature to its native pollinator garden.

At The Living Coast in San Diego, Calif., Elizabeth Argyle, director of education and guest experience, said for the future, the attraction is exploring adding a water feature in the native pollinator garden. “We have been actively fundraising for a small, trickling, self-contained pond as a resource of water to bring pollinators into the garden.” Being located on an active marsh, she noted that currently “We have our shore bird exhibit located on an active marsh, and viewers enjoy seeing the birds interact with their environment. They also enjoy the experience of the marsh itself.” The discovery center is a hands-on experience for visitors that features animals, birds, and marine animals as well as the natural environment of the area.
All in all, water features are wet and wild and growing at zoos and aquariums throughout the country.

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