Under the 'sea': Oklahoma Aquarium building long-sought sea turtle exhibit

Dec 12, 2016

JENKS — Standing amid sculpted concrete, exhibit director Phil Tate manipulates wet material to create artificial coral for a 64,000-gallon tank soon to be filled with water to accommodate the Oklahoma Aquarium’s loggerhead sea turtles.

The aquarium launched the initial fundraising for the exhibit eight years ago, and the March completion date for Sea Turtle Island is finally in sight.

Teri Bowers, executive director of the aquarium, said dips in the economy in Oklahoma and nationwide put a pinch on donors and slowed the fundraising process. But the money eventually came in, and when the city of Jenks allocated a portion of its Vision 2025 overage funds to the aquarium, the project had enough funding to be completed.

Bowers said a creative approach to construction has made the exhibit possible. All aspects of the project — from the design to the engineering to the actual construction — have been performed by the aquarium staff.

If all the work had been outsourced, the project would have cost $5 million to $6 million, she said. “We are keeping it within $2 million.”

The exhibit reflects the Caribbean from the painted blue skies to coral in the tank.

“This is going to be as if you left Oklahoma and landed somewhere in the tropics,” Bowers said.

Three viewing levels will create a varied experience for visitors. A space for underwater observation by children (or adventurous adults) will be beneath the tank; a midlevel view will give visitors a chance to get face-to-face with the turtles; and a top level will overlook the tank and feature educational components.

The construction process has staff and volunteers putting in long hours to meet the March opening date.

“The most time consuming — a month and a half — was just the understructure underneath all of this concrete to hold up this weight,” said Tate. “There is lots of engineering that went into this — lots of scratching our heads, lots of numbers and lots of math.”

“I cannot say enough about our employees, volunteers and board members,” Bowers added. “It’s an exhibit and an educational experience.

“We have three or four who have put themselves in tight spaces, literally”

One of those volunteers, Sherry Stewart, was able to accomplish concrete work in small crevices due to her petite size.

Stewart has been volunteering with the aquarium since before it opened its doors in 2003, logging 5,700 service hours. By working at the aquarium, she has learned to dive and clean tanks and can now add construction to her repertoire.

The sea turtle exhibit is her first experience in helping to create an exhibit.

Loggerheads can live over 50 years, one of Earth’s ancient creatures having been around for an estimated 110 million years. They are found in tropical waters around the world.

The aquarium’s 300-pound loggerhead turtle brothers have been living in large tanks in a non-exhibit portion of the site, but they will find an enhanced social life in their new habitat. “Just getting to see guests every day will make a huge difference,” said Brandy Wallen, the aquarium’s biologist.

She said the environment will be more natural, and the turtles will share their space with reef sharks and other tropical fish.