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Remembering Grand Opening Day

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10 Year Anniversary Stories

Thursday, July 17, 2008


10 Year Anniversary Special Edition Blog

It was a Saturday of remembering the Aquarium of the Pacific’s beginnings. Former Aquarium mammalogist Debbie had surprised the marine mammal crew at lunch with a visit. Currently a curator of mammals and birds at an AZA facility in Texas, she was visiting her relatives in Southern California and had decided to visit the aquarium. Two of her former volunteers Linda and me pretty much fawned over her as she was the person that had taught us how to be marine mammal trainers.

Debbie was the mammalogist in charge on the Grand Opening day of the Aquarium back on June 20th, 1998. Assisting her that day were four marine mammal volunteers, Linda, Greg, Robin and myself. And three of us (Linda, Robin, Me) are still volunteering with the Aquarium.

That Grand Opening Saturday was my third week of volunteering at the Aquarium. It was a crisp morning when the doors opened to the general public for the first time. My wife Pam, then an education volunteer, was stationed at the skates and ray touch tank that morning. Her words of encouragement to me as our crew passed her on our way to the exhibit for the first public feed was “Just don’t fall into the water”! My wife was actually part of the very first Education Volunteer group at the Aquarium of the Pacific. She was there when the big blue whale model in the Great Hall was installed. The whale is a very accurate representation of a Blue whale mother and its calf. The details of the whale were reviewed by the late Dr. John Heyning who was one of the foremost experts on marine mammals in the world. Many of us learned about the whales and dolphins of the Southern California coast from his wonderful lectures. For me the accurate details in the Blue whale and calf hanging above the Great Hall is a fitting tribute to a man who contributed so much to cetacean research, educating the public about them and rescuing beached cetaceans. He was the man most responsible for the successful rescue of a gray whale calf many years ago and was also involved in the Fin whale calf rescue that the Aquarium took part in back in 2003.

The first animal that I worked with on the Grand Opening day was Ellie the harbor seal. Her old feeding station was right next to the Plexiglas window in front of the seating area. Back then the rock façade that divided the holding area, where sea lion encounters are done, from the main exhibit was not yet constructed so we had a lot of room to feed the harbor seal right in front of the public. Ellie was a very intelligent and patient seal with her rookie feeder that day. Ten years later, she’s still is with her now veteran volunteer.

Well, I took my wife’s advice that day and didn’t fall into the exhibit during that first public presentation (I assumed that her advice applied only for the Grand Opening). However, a month later, I did establish a couple of “first” at the Aquarium. I was the first volunteer to accidentally drop a full bucket of fish into the water which made it to the bottom of the exhibit with all the fish still in it and an opportunistic sea lion taking advantage of the feast. And on the very same day I was the first to accidentally fall into the exhibit. I had found a slick spot on the rocks in the front of the exhibit while feeding a seal and started sliding toward the water. The weird part was how slow I was actually sliding. I remember watching the harbor seal’s eyes get wide as I started slipping toward her. The critter, being an intelligent seal, quickly got out of the way as I slid in along with my boots, bucket and whistle. Now falling in is embarrassing enough but to make the incident even more memorable, I did it in front of the entire Saturday dive volunteer crew who just happened to be watching the pinniped feed that morning. Needless to say that for many years the divers never let me forget that I was the first to dive into the exhibit without a wetsuit. The sad part was for the rest of the day while my clothes were drying I had to wear an Aquarium wetsuit during the public presentations (during a hot summer day).

Another memory from the Aquarium’s first summer was the interaction that we had with some of our seals. In the mornings we would don our wetsuits and wade out knee deep onto the rocks next to the front windows to clean the glass. Back then one of our harbor seals had the habit of using its front flippers to hug one of our legs in a playful embrace so that we ended up having to pull the seal through the exhibit while we cleaned. It was lot of fun for the seal but a lot of extra work for the volunteer as we had to drag the young seal along with us while wiping down the glass. We didn’t complain though as it was definitely a unique experience. How many folks can claim to be a seal’s play toy?

Other critters that I remember from Opening Day include Topaz the cat in the office area who was the first to greet me that morning, Radio Flyer the wild Western gull who built his nest and raised his young in our exhibit (For more about Radio Flyer; check out my blog from last year on him and Trixies his mate) and Oscar the Stilt who roamed the sea turtle exhibit while making quite a racket as we walk by. Oscar is still at the Aquarium and now has top billing as the turtle tank was recently converted into the Shorebird Sanctuary.

But more than anything else, my fondest memories are of all the wonderful volunteers and staff who I’ve worked with at the Aquarium over the past decade.

Remembering Grand Opening Day
The three Opening Day marine mammal volunteers still at the Aquarium pictured with their favorite animals from that 1st year. Robin with Shelby. Hugh with Ellie. Linda with Miller.  | Colleen Mclaughlin
Remembering Grand Opening Day
Left to right: Debbie-Hugh-Miller-Linda. Former Aquarium of the Pacific mammalogist Debbie visits with Miller the sea lion and two of her volunteers from the Aquarium's Grand Opening.  | © Hugh Ryono
Remembering Grand Opening Day
The blue whale in the Great Hall is a fitting legacy for the late Dr. John Heyning, a world renowned whale expert who reviewed the details of the sculpture to ensure its accuracy.  | © Pam Ryono
Remembering Grand Opening Day
How the Seal and Sea Lion Exhibit looked on opening day. Notice that the back area next to the windows is open. The rock facade for the Pinniped Encounter area was still a few years in the future.

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