By LYNN LOFTON
Occupying 5.8 acres in downtown Gulfport, the Mississippi Aquarium expects to open on April 30, 2020. All Mississippians can be proud of this new attraction that’s located on Highway 90 across from Jones Park and Gulfport Harbor. It will contain more than 80,000 square feet of exhibits connected by landscaped walkways with plants representing all the physiographic regions of the state. The Aquarium will include indoor and outdoor interactive habitats with more than 200 species of animals from the land, water and air. At the entrance, guests will be greeted by three massive sails standing 65 feet in height, each representing one of the Aquarium’s three pillars: education, conservation and community.
“Guest and animal interactions are taken to the next level through SeaTrek, a helmet diving experience,” says CEO David Kimmel. “Guests will fully immerse into the main aquatic wonders habitat where they will get up close and personal with fish, sharks, rays and much more. There are only a handful of other aquariums in the nation that offer this experience.”
One of the more interesting features is a 360-degree suspended acrylic tunnel. “While most aquariums have a 180-degree tunnel on their ground levels, Mississippi Aquarium’s tunnel goes directly through the main habitat,” Kimmel said. “This will give guests a chance to ‘walk on water’ while having views of marine life from every angle with six feet of water above them and 12 feet of water below them.”
The care and welfare of the animals is the top priority as Mississippi Aquarium obtains accreditation from multiple industry institutions including the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), American Humane Association (AHA), International Marine Animal Trainers’ Association (IMATA) and Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (Alliance). These accreditations will make Mississippi Aquarium the only accredited aquarium in the state.
“Mississippi Aquarium will make coastal Mississippi an area noted for premiere family-friendly attractions and is expected to boost the local economy with an expected 487,000 visitors who will visit restaurants, hotels and shopping amenities,” Kimmel said. “Mississippi Aquarium is an anchor for economic development in and around the downtown Gulfport area. The newly opened Centennial Plaza and the second location of Patio 44 have helped revitalize the downtown area. The restoration of the historic Markham building—which has been abandoned since Hurricane Katrina in 2005—into a 124-room Hyatt Place at the Markham will also play a role in rejuvenating the area.”
Approximately 100 full-time jobs will be created by Mississippi Aquarium with additional part-time and volunteer opportunities available after opening.
Mississippi Aquarium is funded through a public and private partnership with 90 percent of the funding from City of Gulfport bonds, Mississippi Development Authority grants, Restore Act and Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA) funds. The other 10 percent will come from private donations through the Mississippi Aquarium Foundation. “The goal is that by the time Mississippi Aquarium opens the facility will be self-sustaining. At this time our Foundation goal is on target to be met.” Kimmel said.
Constructing any major project can be a challenge. “With the construction of an aquarium you are also faced with an added challenge of introducing animals to a new habitat and helping them adapt to their surroundings,” says Diana White of the Aquarium’s marketing staff. “However, the team of professionals at Mississippi Aquarium is up to the challenge.”
Education will be an important focus. “Reaching the hearts and minds of all guests by connecting them with the planet’s most precious ecosystems is the driving force behind Mississippi Aquarium’s Education Department,” White said. “The education programs are designed to inspire, connect and instill not only a respect for the marine environment, but also empower conservation action and promote sustainable choices for the future.”
Mississippi Aquarium will host Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics (S.T.E.A.M.) focused field trips that give students and teachers an opportunity to experience onsite exploration and hands-on lessons in a state-of-the-art classroom. The University of Southern Mississippi and Mississippi State University are education partners. Southern Mississippi will participate in saltwater research and education and Mississippi State will support veterinary services to provide their students with hands-on opportunities. “Reaching the hearts and minds of all students and guests throughout the state and region will be easier with Mississippi Aquarium’s community outreach vehicle, the Mobile Marine Unit (MMU). The MMU will travel across the state and region to provide education about animals and ocean conservation,” Kimmel said.
Individual and Family memberships are available for purchase by visiting msaquarium.org or by calling 228.205.0536. “Members will receive access to enhanced aquarium experiences that include member only events such as appreciation nights and exhibit preview parties,” White said. “Members also have access to express entry, reduced prices on retail and food services and discounts on guest tickets.”
- More than 1 million gallons of fresh and salt water
- 5.8-acres of indoor/outdoor campus
- 487,000 estimated visitors per year
- 200+ species in 12 habitats
- 50 species of non-toxic plants
- 100 full-time employees
- 45 part-time employees
- $338 million estimated economic impact
- 30-foot long, 360-degree tunnel
- 65-foot tall Sails entry fountain
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