AUGUST 29, 2020 01:26 PM , UPDATED AUGUST 29, 2020
The grand opening of the Mississippi Aquarium, delayed by the coronavirus, dodged two hurricanes this week, was held Saturday on the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Gov. Tate Reeves opened the doors at 10 a.m., and young and old scattered for a first look around.
Some explored outdoors, spotting turtles in The River and standing still inside The Aviary as colorful birds flew around them.
Others ducked inside to discover The Tunnel, where fish swam all around them, and then found more surprises around every turn.
Reeves, who said he will bring his family to tour the new attraction, rounded the corner and was awed by The Wall of marine life, said Kurt Allen, president and CEO of Mississippi Aquarium.
The aquarium will take Mississippi and tourism to the next level, Reeves said, and will be a great learning experience for the state’s 450,000 school children.
They already started coming. Catie Stoltzfus and family drove down from Madison to there on opening day and for a birthday celebration.
“We’re loving it,” she said. “It’s just a great attraction for Mississippi and the Coast.”
Reeves said the significance of opening on the Katrina anniversary brought back then Gov. Haley Barbour’s comment a few weeks after the storm that if the Coast builds back the same the recovery would be a failure.
“To me the beauty of the Mississippi Aquarium is an example of building of something special and making it even better,” Reeves said.
“It’s something the Coast should be really proud of,” Allen said.
People pointed and pulled out their cameras to capture the antics of the African penguins and the experience of touching a baby shark or stingray.
The experiences are separated into about 10 interactive areas.
As one of the newest aquariums in the country, the technology, sound, lights and graphics are exceptional, said Rick Urban, vice president of animal care and conservation.
“We can’t forget the personal touch,” he said, and for that are interpreters throughout the aquarium who know about all the animals, what they eat and where they come from.
“It’s really been fun being able to share with everybody,” Urban said.
He said well over 100 species will take visitors from fresh water Mississippi, to saltwater and beyond, with shark species from Australia.
Some of them animals and fish have names — like Banner the sea turtle, who has his own video.
STILL TO COME
The African penguins, fresh from the public tour over the last year to get the local community excited about the aquarium, are in a temporary habitat exhibit. Urban said he hopes when people see them, they will join a campaign to make them a permanent exhibit.
The forecast of two hurricanes potentially causing problems for Gulfport kept the dolphins from moving in at the aquarium, Allen said. There will be four dolphins arriving within the next month, he said.
The aquarium was designed to promote education, conservation and community. Holley Muraco, PhD. is the director of research and is already working with Mississippi universities to study sea turtles, dolphins and sharks in the Gulf. The equipment and permits are in place and the boat ordered, she said.
There will be public programs to share information and other special events as allowed by the coronavirus. Lindsay Arthur, special events manager, is taking reservations for weddings, meetings and other events.
Precautions are taken throughout the aquarium area, with handwashing required before putting hands in the touch tanks, and hand sanitizer available in other areas so visitors and the aquatic animals keep safe.
IF YOU GO:
Hours: Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. 365 days a year
Admission: $29.95 for adults, ($26.95 for members) and $24.95 for children ages 3-12 ($22.95 for members). A 10% discount ($26.95) is given to seniors age 65+ and military.
Location: The aquarium is on U.S. 90, just east of U.S. 49. Parking is adjacent in the Coast Transit parking garage. Two CTA routes support the aquarium. A free CTA shuttle runs between the aquarium and downtown Gulfport.
AQUARIUM BY THE NUMBERS
1 million plus gallons of saltwater and freshwater
½ mile of walking paths connecting interactive habitats
6 acre site
80,000 square feet of exhibits
100 jobs, including 60 full-time positions
$350 million anticipated economic impact
$42 million in annual federal, state and local tax
25% of Gulfport’s economy is tourism