Tampa’s Florida Aquarium makes a splash with $40 million expansion plan

Open since March 1995, the Florida Aquarium is an original puzzle piece in the metamorphosis of Tampa’s Channel District from an industrial and warehouse area into a mixed-use waterfront buzzing with activity. 

Now, the aquarium, a popular attraction for tourists and local residents that generates an estimated $60 million a year in economic impact, is set to add to the current wave of construction that is raising downtown Tampa’s national profile. The most significant expansion in the aquarium's 27-year history starts next year: a three-year, three-phase, $40 million project adding habitat and exhibit space for puffins, African penguins and California sea lions.

“We are bringing these resources to build a dynamic aquarium that Tampa Bay deserves,” Florida Aquarium President and CEO Roger Germann says during an August 16th public announcement of the expansion. “A world-class aquarium that saves wildlife, that engages our guests and our community, that educates, that inspires and that creates action to protect our natural world and our environment, especially here in Tampa Bay, that environment that we often take for granted.”

Construction is scheduled to start in January with the reconstruction of the same second-floor ballroom that hosted the August 16 expansion announcement into a 3,700-square-foot traveling exhibit space. Aquarium brass expect to open that space by this time next summer and rotate exhibits every 18 to 24 months.

“It will connect guests in a way that they’ve never been connected, up close and personal, with animals they’ve never seen before, with new information about the aquatic world, with some of the awe and wonder of the animals we get to care for each and every day,” says Tim Binder, the aquarium’s senior vice president for Animal Care and Health.

The expansion grows larger and more ambitious with each phase. After completion of the traveling exhibit space, the plan is to reimagine the second-floor lobby with the construction in 2024 of a two-story exhibit that will be anchored by puffins, the black and white seabird typically found in the North Atlantic, and include Atlantic salmon and other large fish species.

Binder says that the exhibit will feature a two-story, 45,000-gallon tank that reaches 15 feet deep to accommodate cliff-diving puffins. Aquarium visitors will get an overhead view from the second floor or an underwater vantage point from the first floor.

In 2025, the third and final phase of the expansion will transform the aquarium’s outdoor plaza into separate outdoor habitats for the first California sea lion exhibit on Florida’s West Coast and for a breeding colony of endangered African penguins.

“It will be a dynamic outdoor exhibit with landscaping that will flow and take you away, make you feel like you are up in the Pacific Northwest,” Germann says.

The exhibit will also play a role in messaging and education about conservation.

“For instance, many of the issues facing California sea lions right now our manatees here in our backyard are facing as well,” Germann says. “So we are going to bridge that gap. We have evolved over the last several years to be a conservation-based aquarium, we’ll continue to live into that mission.”

During a question and answer session at the public event announcing the expansion, Binder also provides his professional perspective on the broader issue of keeping and caring for animals in captivity.

“These are often animals that are difficult to observe in the wild,” he says.  “In human care, we know their medical history, their dietary needs, their reproductive biology. We know things that you can’t learn about animals by studying them in their native environment. We can take that information and apply that to the science that comes out of the native environment and help biologists that are studying those animals make sense out of what they are studying. There are things we have been able to do with animals in human care that you simply cannot do in the wild and we’ve learned a lot about hundreds of species in that capacity.”

For more information go to Florida Aquarium expansion.
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Read more articles by Christopher Curry.

Chris Curry has been a writer for the 83 Degrees Media team since 2017. Chris also served as the development editor for a time before assuming the role of managing editor in May 2022. Chris lives in Clearwater. His professional career includes more than 15 years as a newspaper reporter, primarily in Ocala and Gainesville, before moving back home to the Tampa Bay Area. He enjoys the local music scene, the warm winters and Tampa Bay's abundance of outdoor festivals and events. When he's not working or spending time with family, he can frequently be found hoofing the trails at one of Pinellas County's nature parks.