Visitors to Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium this fall should feel like they’ve traveled to the Pacific Northwest when they enter the zoo’s new sea lion exhibit.
Crews are beginning to put the final touches on Owen Sea Lion Shores, a roughly $26 million project that will give people a “nose-to-nose” view of the marine mammals, said Dennis Pate, the zoo’s president and CEO.
As people wind their way through the exhibit — passing a sandy beach where children can play and an above-ground sea lion viewing window — they will slowly descend until they reach a large “sea cave” that is 12 feet below the surface of a 275,000-gallon saltwater pool.
The cave features a 40-foot viewing window that will provide an underwater, up-close view of sea lions interacting with one another and gliding through the water.
“They are just ballerinas underwater,” Pate said Thursday during a tour provided to local press.
Owen Sea Lion Shores is expected to open to the public around Labor Day.
Pate said zoo officials viewed hundreds of photos of the Pacific Northwest — specifically the Vancouver Island area off the coast of Washington and Canada — to ensure a realistic design. Exhibit elements include common sights along shorelines: artificial mussels, seaweed and starfish; an eagle’s nest; and a large waterfall.
Situated in the northern part of the zoo, the exhibit is surrounded by Douglas fir and various spruce trees and faux rock walls, some of which were repurposed from the former Durham Bear Canyon, the site of the new sea lion habitat.
Pate said the exhibit is “probably our best attempt yet at a true immersion-style exhibit, where you walk in here and you are in the Pacific Northwest.”
The sea lions should find their new digs more comfortable and realistic than the current exhibit. Two wave machines will push and pull the water in ways that mimic how natural waves rebound off rocks in the ocean. The pool will have pockets of warm and cool water — another naturally occurring aspect of the ocean.
A separate “pupping beach” with shallow water will give newborn sea lion pups a space to learn to swim. It takes them about six to eight weeks to get their sea legs, Pate said.
“I don’t know of any other zoo that’s ever done one of these,” he said of the pupping beach.
The zoo has six sea lions. A seventh from California will eventually join them. The display was designed for up to 10.
The exhibit offers some kid-centric spaces. A beach near the entrance will let them combine water and sand to craft and play. A small cave designated for children offers another space to view the sea lions underwater.
Visitors will be able to watch trainers interact with the sea lions or catch the creatures sunning on rocks at a 175-person amphitheater.
Owen Sea Lion Shores is one of the final projects included in a 2010 15-year master plan to transform the zoo. The exhibit was fully funded by previous donations that were earmarked specifically for the project, Pate said.
The zoo has put some projects on pause while it deals with the financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
Zoogoers currently cannot visit indoor exhibits, and they’re limited to a one-way path that begins at the southern entrance. Pate estimated that between 10% and 50% of guests have been wearing masks.
“We really want people to wear masks while they’re at the zoo,” he said.