Omaha will soon be home to one of the largest and most immersive sea lion exhibits in the world.
Construction is under way on the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium’s new $27.5 million, 1.5-acre Owen Sea Lion Shores at the former site of the Durham Bear Canyon. The exhibit will open next summer.
Visitors will have 360-degree views to watch seven to 10 sea lions swim around a 275,000-gallon seasonally heated and chilled saltwater pool.
A trail will wrap around the pool, beginning near a sea lion training amphitheater that seats 170 people and gradually declining past semi-mature spruce trees, detailed rock work and interactive waterfalls and streams to an underground cave with a 40-foot wall of glass for underwater viewing.
“It will allow (visitors) to see sea lions in a way they’ve never seen them before here,” zoo Director Dennis Pate said. “They’ve always looked out at them, but never through the water.”
The new sea lion pool replaces the Owen Sea Lion Pavilion, which will close next summer. The exhibit opened in 1972 after the zoo unearthed and modified a buried public pool that had closed during the polio epidemic.
The zoo is still finalizing plans for the site of the pool, which will be demolished. Pate said he is considering relocating Sue’s Carousel, Stingray Beach or the north train station. The zoo has secured the donations to do so.
As for the former residents of Bear Canyon, most have found other homes . Sloth bears can be found in the zoo's Asian Highlands, black bears now live at Wildlife Safari Park in Ashland, and polar bears and brown bears will get new exhibits at the zoo soon.
The new Owen Sea Lion Shores is part of a grander vision to create a coastal Alaskan-themed area at the northwest end of the zoo.
The Alaskan Adventure splash pad, Glacier Bay Landing concessions area and Owen Sea Lion Shores will be joined in the future by new exhibits for polar bears, Alaskan brown bears, sea otters and lynx. Pate said the zoo needs to raise funds before deciding where and when to build exhibits for those other species.
However, the new sea lion exhibit stands as an achievement of its own. The rocky cliff backdrop, forested islands and interactive environment are expected to make the exhibit a visitor favorite.
Twin wave chambers will fire at different intervals to create a naturalistic wave pattern in the pool. Zookeepers will hide frozen fish or calamari in a series of tubes around the pool, which will drop into the water at random intervals as they thaw.
“We’re going farther for these animals than we have in the past,” Pate said.
The exhibit was carefully laid out so that boulders and other natural features will block visitors from seeing humans on the other side of the exhibit, keeping the focus on the animals and the environment. Spectators can see the animals from 10 feet above or at the bottom of the 12-foot-deep pool, depending on where they are along the trail.
Halfway through the exhibit will be a sandy beach and a gentle waterfall where kids can sculpt sand into animal shapes with the help of a zoo employee. At the opposite end is a beach for sea lion mothers to train their pups to swim.
“Most zoos do what we do now and drain their pool,” Pate said. “This is the first time I’ve seen this ever in a zoo.”
This is the first project at the zoo for architect Studio Hanson|Roberts.
The zoo initially hoped to open the exhibit by the spring of 2020, but a frigid winter and a wet spring caused construction delays. Crews poured concrete in the pool Wednesday, and the 40-foot piece of glass for underwater viewing should arrive soon, meaning the project is on track to open before Labor Day 2020.