The Seattle Aquarium's renovation, which will debut next week, is highlighted by two major new exhibits, a cafe and a bigger gift shop.

Share story

The Seattle Aquarium will reveal its $41 million face-lift next Friday, showing off a new entrance hall, a cafe, an expanded gift shop, an 18,000-square-foot auditorium space and two dizzying new exhibits.

The flashiest is “Window on Washington Waters,” a 40-foot-high, 120,000-gallon tank. Made of a single slab of uninterrupted acrylic, it’s placed in the wall at an angle, requiring visitors to peer up at it as if watching a movie.

“The Window,” as it’s called, showcases a variety of small marine animals from the Washington coast and features three daily “underwater shows.” A diver with a waterproof microphone and earpiece will speak to, and answer questions from, the audience.

Just on the other side of this enormous water wall is another half-pipe-shaped window, 6 feet wide and 40 feet tall. Walking in that blue-gray cave gives you a strange feeling that you’re actually underwater — you might even catch yourself instinctively holding your breath.

The second new exhibit, “Crashing Waves,” is a 40-foot-long artificial wave pool. Every few seconds, a wave breaks on one end, sending hundreds of gallons of white water rushing through the exhibit, whose walls are just taller than a professional basketball player.

Visitors watch the hearty marine creatures — starfish, anemones and fish — plaster themselves to the exhibit walls, weathering the regular torrents that punish their underwater neighborhood.

Seattle Aquarium reopening At 9:30 a.m. June 22, the aquarium will reopen after a one-day closure and resume normal operating hours, 9:30 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. The last ticket will be sold at 5 p.m. Adult tickets are $15, youth (4-12) are $10, children under 3 admitted free. Pier 59 on the waterfront; 1483 Alaskan Way, Seattle. For more information, or 206-386-4300.

All of the aquarium’s older exhibits, including the beloved otters and the underwater dome, are just where we left them. Some of the exhibits, which reach back to the aquarium’s opening in 1977, have been “spruced up” a bit, says Tim Kuniholm, the aquarium’s director of marketing. But most are the same as visitors remember.

Visitors now enter the aquarium on Pier 59 near the new “Window on Washington,” where the exit used to be.

Aquarium project

The underside: Construction workers pulled up 760 rotting wood pilings from Pier 59 and replaced them with 270 cement-filled steel pilings.

The window frame: It took 16 truckloads of concrete to make the “Window” exhibit.

The staging: Biologists began collecting new fish before the exhibits were finished. In order to make room for all the new animals, the aquarium set up big holding tanks — giant Jacuzzi-looking tubs — on the back of the pier.

The big move: When the time came to put the 475 fish into the “Window” exhibit, biologists waded into the tanks, collected the animals in nets and placed them in big buckets, like bathtubs on wheels. The fish were then scooted down a hallway, up an elevator and into their new home.

The old is new: The countertops and handrails in the new cafe are made from the old wood that was salvaged from the east end of Pier 59.

Half of the $41 million face-lift — $22.4 million from the city of Seattle — was earmarked for renovations on the rotting 100-year-old building and the structure under Pier 59. Another big chunk — $17 million from public and private donations — was used to create the exhibits and new visitor services.

The whole renovation and expansion project is actually relatively humble compared with the city’s plan in the 1990s to build a new aquarium on Piers 62 and 63 for $225 million. Interest in that project dried up, along with potential funding sources, when the dot-com bubble burst.

Since then, the aquarium — which has been open during the renovations — has worked to build visitor interest in small-scale exhibits, such as the interactive tidal pools for kids.

It has managed to remain “just fine financially,” said Bob Davidson of the Seattle Aquarium Society, the nonprofit that runs the aquarium on the city’s behalf. Since 2002, the aquarium’s average visitor base has increased from about 500,000 a year to a consistent 700,000 a year. Still, the Aquarium Society hopes the expansion will make more money for the aquarium.

The aquarium used to share the Alaskan Way streetfront with the IMAX Theater and Steamer’s restaurant, both of which paid nominal rent (combined, less than $225,000 a year) to the city.

Now there’s an entrance and ticketing area — a vaulted space lined with three flat-screen TVs — in the space where Steamer’s once sold ice-cream cones.

The aquarium now rents space inside the building to two outside organizations, Sodexho and Event Network. Those companies will pay higher rent. Sodexho will run the aquarium’s new cafe and evening catering services, while Event Network will run the gift store.

“People have come to expect a certain experience at institutions like this. They expect to be able to get something to eat and to stop at a decent gift store,” Davidson said.

Adult ticket prices will increase from $12.50 to $15, youth tickets from $8.50 to $10. The aquarium will continue to rent its space to public and private parties. The new auditorium, Puget Sound Hall, already is almost completely booked through December.

Haley Edwards: 206-464-2745 or