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July 29, 2010

Member Highlight: Living Planet Aquarium

Tucked amongst a construction zone in Sandy is Utah’s portal to the exciting life of the ocean. I was offered a tour of the Living Planet Aquarium on Monday morning before operating hours. I pull into an empty parking lot, and approach what initially appears to be a pretty average, if not plain looking building. What I come to find out is the outside is camouflage for the fascinating treasures waiting inside. The Living Planet Aquarium is a “501(c) (3) non-profit organization, dedicated to cultivating public interest in the environment, conservation, and the enhancement of our planet and its creatures through adoption, education, research and recreation”. This organization host the most beautiful of exotic wildlife found in and near the great oceans and rivers of the world. Everything from a penguin exhibit to a tidal pool touch tank is located within the exhibits. There is plenty to learn, see, and touch throughout the building.

I am first introduced to Program’s Manager of three years, Carolyn Adler. She is my personal guide through the intelligently- designed displays. “Discover Utah, Ocean Explorer, and Journey to South America” are the various themed exhibits to tour when visiting. It is evident that the organization places value in education; the layout meanders like a flowing river and around each bend contains life to look at and learn about. “Discover Utah” contains a replica of the Great Salt Lake; with mossy water, living plants, and even a Boreal toad, who peacefully sits on a stone as we pass by. What is the Great Salt Lake without a boat ride, right? Playing into every child’s imagination the exhibit has a simulated boat ride, with life-size controls to interact with as you coast through the salty wetlands. The most important aspect of this exhibit is how it explains the importance of the Great Salt Lake to wildlife, the economy, and how we as a society depend on such ecosystems to sustain life. After viewing the endangered and threatened species such as, the June Suckers and the Least Chub, there is a nice tie in to water conservation and water issues that pertain specifically to Utah.

Next on the list to see was the “Ocean Explorer” exhibit. Everything that you picture when you think of the ocean is included in this portion of the tour, and perhaps you may encounter some things that have never crossed your mind. First things first! As I mentioned before there is a tidal pool touch tank, this is an open snake shape pool of water to dip your hands in. What is in the touch tank? Why a Southern Stingray of course! That’s right, located in the TOUCH TANK is a Southern Stingray known to get up to 5 feet across! No need to worry though, these Stingray’s no longer have their sting, so they are pleasant to the touch, well… with the slimy skin, I guess I should say harmless to the touch. Unlike traditional exhibits with every turn there is something to learn through touch, could a kid ask for anything more?!

An educational feature ran by one of the educational presenters has continually changing themes that ask thoughtful questions. To go along with the themed questions is a chain of small aquariums with interesting creatures to feel, such as the pencil urchin and the horseshoe crab, whose existences dates back to 445 million years ago! My favorite of the “Ocean Explorer” exhibit was the “Jelly Room”. This room is completely dark with the only light coming from the glow of the aquariums and educational plaques. With the euphoric music floating throughout the room the jellies seem more to dance through the water than swim. I was first introduced to the upside down jellies, which can create their own algae making them pretty self-sufficient creatures. Next up, receiving its name from its translucent, circular shape; was the harmless moon jelly, floating up and down in the tank. There is so much more to see and explore in the “Ocean Explorer” exhibit, including six different species of sharks, a Giant Pacific Octopus, and a massive, live coral reef structure. The exhibit makes a clear connection between coral reefs and their importance to ocean life and to the planet as a whole.

As I approach the end, I finally enter the “Journey to South America” exhibit. The educational emphasis in this exhibit is biodiversity, which is demonstrated through the amazing structures mimicking the lush vegetation of the Amazon Rain Forest and the opportunity to see incredible creatures. This is a perfect way to learn about biodiversity, with plenty of opportunity to examine and learn about various animals, ranging from the poison dart frog, who receives its toxicity from eating insects to the Arapaima, who breathes air from rising to the surface and inhaling large amounts of oxygen. The amazing wildlife doesn’t stop there; it seems that this section has something for everyone. For excitement check out an eel that has an electronic scale, that measures its voltage when hunting. If you’re looking to meet a titan, then pass by the aquarium that is home to the 10-foot long anaconda. Or if you want to get in touch with your cuddly side, visit the Gentoo penguins, where you can see them dashing in and out of the waters.

After the tour I was invited to the back offices to sit-down with Carolyn and talk more about her personal connection to the organization and the educational programming. When speaking with Carolyn I asked, “What do you enjoy most about working here?” Her answer was the opportunity to educate others about the very things that she is passionate about. She told me that this facility creates an opportunity for children and adults to have a rare learning experience about aquatic life, which normally, they would not be able to have, here in Utah. One way to provide these educational resources is through their educational programming. They have an extensive outreach program, which has themed vans traveling to elementary schools with interesting topics and animals. The program is free and “coordinates with the Utah State Office of Education’s General Core Curriculum for second grade and the Science Core Curriculum for third grade. It helps foster a greater awareness for important environments most students will never see”. Learning doesn’t only have to be for the youth, the organization coordinates an adult lecture series entitled “Adventures in the Deep Sea”. This lecture series explores the unique and strange adaptations of sea life in the deep waters of the ocean.

What I was unaware of but found to be extremely interesting was their volunteer program. I spoke briefly with the volunteer Coordinator, Melissa Bowers and learned about the great strides they are making within the program. One of their many volunteer opportunities is the field program, with projects that consist of collecting and learning about insects, while at the same time, restoring natural areas by picking up trash and debris. After speaking with Carolyn and Melissa I find that not only is the Living Planet Aquarium home to the most exotic and fascinating of creatures, but the programming offers educational and volunteer opportunities for all ages. To learn more about the organization visit: www.thelivingplanet.com.

Exiting from the back offices and re-entering the exhibit, it was now operating hours. I found the facility, that earlier was virtually silent, now filled and bustling with kids and adults cocking their necks out just as I had done, to get a closer look at the fascinating life behind the glass. I took a few more pictures of the Amazonian fish and passed through the jelly room once more. I then walked outside and turned around to take one last picture of the building. I left with an overwhelming urge to book the next available trip to the coast, unfortunately, my current budget does not put me in the position to take such a trip, though I think a couple of visits back to the Living Planet Aquarium will definitely suffice until then.

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