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Kansas City Zoo's new aquarium is opening. Meet the aquatic friends who just moved in

A woman and two young boys sit on a concrete platform inside. They are looking at a large aquarium exhibit that shows an underwater reef and a large fish.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Ashley Shockey and her two sons, Wilder, on the left, and Flynn, right, take time Thursday afternoon to watch the action in the warm reef exhibit at the Sobela Ocean Aquarium.

The aquarium features thousands of animals, and takes visitors on a journey into the ocean and along the shore. It also adds to the zoo’s conservation efforts.

The Sobela Ocean Aquarium at The Kansas City Zoo and Aquarium opens Friday, after a decade of planning.

The 650,000-gallon attraction, named for the grandchildren of Shirley and Barnett Helzberg, houses 200 species of animals. That’s more than 8,000 animals in total, including sea otters, turtles, sharks and octopus.

Admission to the aquarium is included as part of a regular zoo ticket, thanks to the Zoological District sales tax. Residents of Jackson and Clay counties will continue to receive half off admission.

Sean Putney, executive director of the zoo, says he’s excited to open the aquarium for patrons to enjoy, after five years of architectural design and months of getting animals settled into the aquarium.

A silhouette of a woman holding a cell phone up to record video is seen against a deep blue tank of water with glowing orange jellyfish.
Carlos Moreno
Jana Corrie, a social media influencer from Kansas City, records a tank filled with current rider jellyfish during Thursday's preview visit at the Sobela Ocean Aquarium.

“Every aquarium tries to have a flow, and we chose to go from the beaches and the shorelines, down through the lagoons and the beaches and a little bit deeper,” Putney said. "We think it's unique, we think it's really cool, and we hope everybody that comes in feels the same,” he said.

Visitors enter the aquarium in the warm coastline zone, the first of six featured habitats. The first pool will have fish, anemones and urchins in a mockup of a Caribbean island. Cotton-top tamarin primates and toco toucans live amongst the mangrove trees in the habitat.

Sea turtles and small sharks will greet patrons as they enter the warm shallows in the second zone. Guests can see and touch giant hermit crabs, starfish and horseshoe crabs in a lagoon touch pool. This zone also boasts one of the aquarium's most lovable residents, Tortellini the green sea turtle.

A green sea turtle floats with his tail over his head inside a large aquarium. A small shark and sting ray can be swimming nearby.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Tortellini, a green sea turtle, floats in his tank at the Sobela Ocean Aquarium with other inhabitants of the Warm Shallows zone. Tortellini was injured by boat and suffers from buoyancy problems and a damaged hind flipper.

Tortellini came to the zoo for rehabilitation after being hit by a boat, which damaged her shell. She’s recovered now, but has nerve damage that traps gas in her body and makes the back of her shell float. To help her swim normally, handlers have attached a sort of weighted backpack to her shell.

Putney said helping Tortellini is just one of the zoo’s conservation efforts, which includes funding and on-the-ground work for endangered species.

“We're about as far away from the ocean as you can get,” Putney says. “A lot of people who grow up here might not have that attachment to the oceans, and to the animals that live here, that somebody in California, Texas or Florida might have. But we are connected and we do depend on the oceans too.”

Silhouettes of two fish are seen from below. They are swimming in a tank of water where sun is beaming from above.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Two fish make their way around an overhead tank in the in the 362,262-gallon warm reef tank in zone 3 at the Sobela Ocean Aquarium on Thursday.

In the warm reef zone, patrons will be able to see a Pacific reef complete with five sharks, colors, sea turtles and rays. The sharks, four sand tiger sharks and one brown shark, were the aquarium's first residents, and were moved from the Georgia Aquarium after they grew too big for its exhibit.

The sharks were the main attraction for the Shockey family, who visited the aquarium on Thursday, ahead of its opening.

Ashley Shockey said her kids, Flynn and Wilder, are enamored with sea life and really excited to have a big aquarium so close to home.

“We travel a lot and we always try to find an aquarium wherever we go,” she said. “We heard that it was opening three years ago ... we've been just counting down the seconds.”

One person walks at left near a large display featuring giant kelp and others sit on a round, wooden bench near a brightly lit cone-shaped aquarium in a large, dark room.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Visitors to the Sobela Ocean Aquarium tour through the Cold Shallows zone during Thursday's preview of the Kansas City Zoo's new addition.

Flynn Shockey came ready to see the coral and, his favorite, the bonnethead shark. With at least three other aquariums under his belt, the 6-year-old said Sobela Aquarium is already at the top of the list.

“It’s super cool," he said. "It's my favorite aquarium in the whole world."

"Spokes-animals" for their species

As the aquarium's exhibits journey deeper into the ocean, the water gets a little colder. A giant Pacific octopus greets visitors to the cold shallows, which also houses lobster, leopard sharks and a moray eel.

The final exhibit in the aquarium, the cold coastline, features a touch pool full of urchins, sea stars, and horn sharks, but the main attraction is the sea otters. The animals were nearly hunted to extinction for their pelts but now the population is growing. The zoo is part of a program to keep otters that can’t thrive on their own.

A man and a woman walk at left near an indoor, large clear tank filled with water and other underwater animals and a small reef.
Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Visitors to the Sobela Ocean Aquarium walk around the Warm Shallows exhibit Thursday where media were allowed to preview the Kansas City Zoo's Aquarium a day before it officially opened to the public.

Putney says the zoo started preparing for the otters five years ago. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which represents more than 235 zoos, regulates how animals can be cared for in participating facilities. To get the pair of sea otters, the zoo had to build an exhibit with plenty of space to stretch out. The zoo built the entire aquarium around those specifications.

The otters, named Owin and Matti, after sea otter conservationists Margaret Owings and Jim Mattison, were rescued and brought to the zoo by the Long Beach Aquarium.

“Usually what happens is they get washed ashore for one reason or another,” Putney says. “With that happening, they are either going to get euthanized, because there isn't anywhere for them to go, or they get designated to go to a zoo aquarium where they can be 'spokes-animals' for their species.”

When news breaks, it can be easy to rely on officials and people in power to get information fast. As KCUR’s general assignment and breaking news reporter, I want to bring you the human faces of the day’s biggest stories. Whether it’s a local shop owner or a worker on the picket line, I want to give you the stories of the real people who are driving change in the Kansas City area. Email me at savannahhawley@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @savannahhawley.
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