Giddyup! Seahorses make splash at Point Defiance

One of the first things adults will notice upon walking into Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium’s latest major exhibit, “Once Upon a Tide: A Seahorse Odyssey,” is the viewing tanks are below eye-level.

“These are all designed for children 4 to 8,” explained John Rupp, an aquatic animal curator at Point Defiance. “So adults have to get down.”

Housed in the North Pacific Aquarium, the new exhibit is designed to enchant children, hence the lower-level placement of the tanks.

Older, taller visitors will also find the exhibit fascinating, even if they have to stoop down to get a closer look at the 17 species of seahorses and seahorse relatives such as leafy and weedy seadragons, clownfish and pipefish that will eventually make up the display.

“Seahorses are mythological characters that have been with us for thousands of year,” Rupp said.

Seed stocks of seahorses from aquariums around the country are continuing to arrive to get biological activity in the tanks stared, Rupp said, in order to slowly build up the population.

Though not set to officially open until Saturday, May 24, the exhibit is in the midst of a “soft opening,” said Carolyn Cox, Point Defiance public relations coordinator.

The soft opening period will give the animals time to adjust to their new environment, Cox said.

It will also be used to get a feel for what people like and don’t like about the exhibit, she said.

If the wide-eyed, excited children scurrying about Tuesday afternoon are any indication, the new exhibit will be a hit, and that’s just fine with zoo officials.

“The exhibit is a tool primarily to influence children, primarily ages 4 to 8 years old,” Rupp said, with the goal of getting them to respect and appreciate the environment.

“By 11 or 12, children are interested in other things, so we want to target that age group,” he said. “Oh, it’s real popular.”

In addition to the low-level tanks, another kid-friendly feature of the new exhibit are the animated videos that teach viewers about seahorse habitats and the animals who live there.

Over the next several weeks, the animated videos will be replaced by more sophisticated high-tech Claymation videos, Cox said.

Lehrman Cameron Studio of Seattle is the firm that designed the exhibit graphics and displays.

The Claymation videos will blend with traditional storytelling to follow a character named Potbelly Seahorse on his adventures into medieval kingdoms representing seahorse habitats.

In keeping with the exhibit’s medieval theme, seahorses and their relatives will be featured in displays resembling a castle rotunda, a kelp forest, a coral reef, seagrass beds and a throne room. A strong conservation theme will underscore the storyline.

Visitors will learn about environmental threats to seahorses, including pollution, habitat destruction and over-fishing.

Millions of seahorses are being harvested for use in traditional Chinese medicine, Rupp said, explaining scientists are working on developing small-scale farming practices as an alternative to the over-fishing of seahorses.

“We want to participate in that,” he said, referring to helping the propagation of seahorses.

In staging the exhibit, Point Defiance has entered into a partnership with Project Seahorse, an international organization that works to protect these fragile creatures.

“We are delighted to be able to support Project Seahorse in their international efforts for conservation, and look forward to linking our exhibit at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium with seahorse conservation efforts in the seas,” said Dr. Karen Goodrowe, the zoo’s general curator and chairwoman of the Conservation, Research and Animal Care Committee, in a statement.

The committee recently awarded a $1,000 grant to Project Seahorse. The money was raised by The Zoo Society, a private fund-raising organization.

The working budget for the seahorse exhibit is about $330,000, Rupp said.

Zoo officials are pleased with how the exhibit has turned out and how it’s being received.

To her knowledge, this is a first-of-its kind exhibit, Cox said.

“Everyone’s getting something different out of it,” Rupp said.

“It is a permanent exhibit,” he said. “It will be with us for as long as we’re with Project Seahorse.”

For more information on the new exhibit or Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in general, visit the zoo’s Website at: