29 August 2005 is remembered by inhabitants of the Gulf Coast as the day that Hurricane Katrina struck. Fifteen years on, 29 August 2020 will see the opening of the $98 million Mississippi Aquarium in Gulfport, marking the revitalisation of the coast.
In the run-up to the ribbon-cutting at the groundbreaking new attraction, Blooloop caught up with the CEO of Mississippi Aquarium, Kurt Allen, and with Project Executive Emily Howard of St. Louis-based architects PGAV Destinations.
Kurt Allen’s move to the aquarium sector came after a degree in hotel management and a career in hospitality. He tells Blooloop:
“When I moved to Hawaii in 2002 I took my first aquatic marine job. I was jumping with both feet into an industry I knew nothing about, to be honest. I ran that business in Hawaii and learned an awful lot. It got me interested in the industry and in the ramifications of what’s going on environmentally and conservation-wise”.
His next aquarium role was in St. Augustine, Florida, a subsidiary of Georgia Aquarium.
“I was able to continue for almost nine years there before I jumped over to Mississippi, and took on this role.”
The Mississippi Aquarium and Gulf Cost revitalisation
The Mississippi Aquarium has been designed, he says, as an economic driver:
“We are opening on a very significant day. 29 August is the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, where the Mississippi Gulf Coast was decimated.”
“The revitalisation that has happened along the entire coast is phenomenal. We are the cherry on top of the sundae. So many beautiful things have happened, and now we’re going to open this world-class attraction that solidifies what’s happening along the Gulf Coast.
“There are many projects that have already started to open just because the aquarium put a shovel in the ground: shops, hotels, restaurants. Buildings that have stood empty since Katrina are being revitalised. There is a lot of excitement, and interest in economic development has risen exponentially because of the aquarium.”
Mississippi Aquarium is in a unique position, Allen says, in terms of engaging with its visitors:
“People along the Gulf Coast have seen the results of good and bad conservation, and of environmental events. Not only did Hurricane Katrina roll through 15 years ago, but the entire Gulf Coast also had to deal with the BP oil spill.
“Last year, we also had to deal with the decisions of the Army Corps of Engineers to open up the flood control spillways for an unusually long period, blasting water into the Mississippi Sound with some possibly detrimental effects.”
“The people here are resilient. They understand the critical nature of the connection with the environment and our animal life.
“The stories we are telling at the aquarium are happening in our backyard. The need for environmental research is very clear to people who have seen 150 dolphins die because of something in the environment.
“We have a good connection with our client base. Because of where we are and what we’ve been through, there is a large understanding that there are questions to ask, and a lot more work that needs to be done. I think they’re going to look to the aquarium as an authority that can start providing some answers.”
Indoor and outdoor attractions at Mississippi Aquarium
The aquarium is designed as an indoor and outdoor campus:
“We can take advantage of nice weather pretty much year-round. So the decision was made to spread out across the six-acre campus, rather than just having a building that people walked through. We have connected the areas with our ‘from brown to blue and beyond’ theming. This signifies the brown waters of the rivers that come down through Mississipi, hitting the Mississippi Sound, and then beyond.”
Acrylic walls are incorporated in the central river exhibit to allow views above and below the water, showcasing alligators, otters and regional fish.
“We tell the conservation stories of the American crocodilian family,” says Allen. “There are alligators in the bayous here, so most people are familiar with them.
“We walk through a freshwater river, highlighting Mississippi species. For instance, paddlefish, different types of gar, catfish, bass and crappies. The things Mississippians are familiar with. And then we get into the main aquarium where visitors see ‘beyond’ with some of the colourful tropical fishes.
“Then there are our dolphins. People down here are passionate about their dolphins because they live right here on the Sound. It’s the official state marine mammal. We also have a great collection of birds in our walkthrough aviary.”
Working with the community
Describing the aquarium’s community outreach strategy, he says:
“We started building our company two-and-a-half years ago. Our logo has three large sails, which represent the pillars of what we are building our company on – education, conservation, and community.”
“There are multi-levels of community. We have our local community. Here, we are hiring individuals, we’re providing jobs, we’re providing an economic lift for people. Then have the community of the state; we are the state’s aquarium, so we have our entire state community.
“Furthermore, we have our national community, but we also have our peer group community, of zoos and aquariums.
“In terms of our local communities, we had grand plans to be able to go around the state and do our outreach to all of the school systems and have field trips come in.”
Virtual field trips
The COVID-19 pandemic has put a different spin on the original plans.
“We still plan,” he says: “We have an old Airstream trailer that we’re converting into what looks like a submarine. We will pull that around the state to bring a little bit of the coast to school districts up North, as long as the COVID implications are suitable to do that.”
“Mississippi Aquarium will do as much outreach as we can. And then we’re taking the field trip lessons and turning them into virtual ones, for when the education cycle settles down again. We’re going to be as flexible as we can as a resource for teachers so that we can do live streaming to a classroom.
“Team members can walk out to an alligator exhibit and FaceTime with a class. Those are the kinds of opportunities that we look forward to with our outreach programs.”
Conservation and outreach
Conservation and research are key, he explains:
“We have been very fortunate in that we have been able to jumpstart our science, research and conservation programs. Mississippi Aquarium received funding through some sources that allowed us to build out a facility, and it puts us ahead of where we thought we would be.
“We are building out a facility about two miles off campus that we refer to as the ARC: the Aquatic Research Center. It will be our headquarters for our science and research programs. Dr Holley Muraco is our director of research.”
“The initial studies that we will be focusing on, in partnership with some of the universities, are hammerhead shark tagging, sea turtle nesting data, and dolphin photo ID and DNA analysis of some of the wild dolphins.
“These programs will grow over time. The dolphin project will eventually lead to us doing health assessments of the wild dolphins. This means that we can see what’s happening in the environment.”
The institution has close relationships with the University of Southern Mississippi and Mississippi State University as partners in several of these programs.
The core ethos of Mississippi Aquarium
Allen explains Mississippi Aquarium’s core ethos:
“What we internally strive to do is to be the premier institution delivering an awe-inspiring entertainment experience. One which supports animal research and conservation, inspires learning and instils a passion for the aquatic world.”
“We exist to be the windows of the waters of the Mississippi, the Gulf Coast, and beyond. The Aquarium will foster a sense of appreciation by encouraging guests to explore majestic environments and play an active role in research and conservation efforts. Those objectives are what we think about when we make decisions.
“We fall back on our three pillars of education, conservation, and community. When we make decisions, they are based on what our mission is and how we can influence any of those three pillars within our organization.”
“It is probably the worst time in the history of the world to open an aquarium, but we’re pushing through,” says Allen. “We’re going to give the citizens of Mississippi something to be proud of.”
Emily Howard of PGAV Destinations detailed the design process:
“PGAV led the master planning and design of the project. This included the buildings, exhibit design, interior design, graphic design, and then overseeing the consultant team. We made several trips to ensure that the design was implemented the way that it was intended, and reviewed all of the theming aspects, the rock work, and so on.”
The revitalization of the coast in the wake of Katrina was one of the big missions. PGAV started the design process in 2015.
Howard says: “One of the missions of the Gulfport Redevelopment Commission (GRC), which essentially owns the aquarium, was not only to revitalise Gulfport and the coast but to recognise that this revitalisation means a lot to the entire coast in the wake of Katrina, fifteen years ago.
“We got behind that, and it is part of the story of the Mississippi Aquarium. It is also a regional aquarium story, educating about Mississippi coastal animals and animals that live in the bayous.”
Designing Mississippi Aquarium
There were several challenges in the project’s realisation, even before COVID-19 struck.
“This aquarium has a couple of firsts,” says Howard. “One is that it is an indoor and outdoor aquarium, which was a challenge in itself. There is one large indoor gallery, but then a lot of the animals are outside. The climate lends itself to being able to do that.
“The other first is an acrylic tunnel through the middle of the big tank. This makes it feel like you’re walking underwater. That was another challenge, but it’s exciting. I think a lot of people are just going to be in awe over that.”
The suspended acrylic tunnel is through a three-story tank. This affords a 360-degree view and allows visitors to immerse themselves in the exhibit. Here, they join sharks, rays, angelfish and many other species in their own environment.
“The whole narrative is around Mississippi’s brown to blue water corridor. It tells the story of Mississippi’s animals through the way water connects the whole world.
“In Mississippi, it goes from the small lakes and streams and bayous into rivers all the way down into the Mississippi Sound, and out into the Gulf of Mexico. We are telling that story of the waters.
“When you enter the aquarium, you start with the brown water; there are alligators and fish that live in the rivers and streams and bayous. The big, main gallery is an ocean gallery of Gulf species. Reaching it is a journey.”
The challenges of COVID-19
COVID-19 has imposed limitations, and will continue to do so into the immediate future:
“What will happen in the longer term is unknown,” says Howard. “With the aquarium, we have really tried to put the most positive spin on the situation.”
“The opening date was postponed. This afforded extra time for making some necessary changes and preparations to accommodate precautions and safety measures. The aquarium was still under construction, so changes could be incorporated along the way.
“The new ribbon-cutting on 29 August, the anniversary of Katrina. It will be bittersweet, and a way to say, ‘Hey, this is a great thing that we’re doing from the coast. Let’s remember Katrina, but let’s also figure out how to move forward together.’
“Pushing the date back made that happen as well, which is a sweet surprise.”
Images kind courtesy of Mississippi Aquarium