The Seattle Aquarium Finding Its “Conservation Voice”

Written by on March 21, 2014 in Editor's Choice, Interviews, Other News

Editor’s Note — The SeaWorld/captivity controversy is painting marine life parks in a new light. What was once considered a fun, educational place to take your family is now being viewed by many as a place that’s exploiting marine life simply for profit. But SeaWorld is first and foremost a theme park and entertainment company and that’s not true of all marine life parks. In fact, many aquariums are actually nonprofits. With that in mind, MST is going to take a look at some aquariums and marine life parks around the world to find out what kinds of places are out there and if they strive to promote education and conservation of the marine world.


Disclaimer: We at Marine Science Today cannot hope to offer every piece of information that makes an aquarium “good” or “bad,” and we hope to stay away from those kinds of clear cut answers, except when completely unavoidable. We hope that this article series will offer a set of basic criteria to examine when choosing to visit or support your local aquariums. The most fundamental question we hope all of our readers will ask before supporting any organization is, “Does this organization support marine life, conservation, and education in action as well as in name?”

The Seattle Aquarium.

The Seattle Aquarium. Photo credit: Allie Tripp.

The Seattle Aquarium takes full advantage of its fantastic location on Pier 59 looking out over Puget Sound in downtown Seattle, Washington. From its founding in 1977 through 2010, the Aquarium was owned and operated by the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department. The Seattle Aquarium Society has since assumed management of the facility, though the official transition period will last through 2014. The Aquarium is accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) and is cited for Sustainable practices on the AZA website. The Seattle Aquarium is the 9th largest (based on attendance) aquarium in North America, and in the top five paid attractions in the Puget Sound region.

Marine Science Today sat down with Jim Wharton, Director of Conservation & Education at the Seattle Aquarium, to talk about the Aquarium’s conservation efforts, educational programming, and mission of inspiring conservation of our marine environment.

Educational programs: What kind of educational programs does the aquarium offer? Is there any emphasis on their local environments?

The Seattle Aquarium has a large variety of educational programs, and does a particularly good job integrating theme weeks into its program of regularly scheduled activities. Events in the month of February included Toddler Time, Octopus Week, and an Ocean Career Day for middle, high school and college students.

Upon entering the aquarium, the casual visitor might be surprised by the lack of informational signage. The surprisingly large number of Aquarium staff members and volunteers directly counters the bare walls. These knowledgeable staffers surround the exhibits answering questions and offering observations to visitors. Wharton noted that this is approach is intentional, as he puts it, “You can’t put passion in a sign; we would rather connect people with people.”

The Aquarium also seeks to make these people-to-people connections with the local population outside of its walls. Each year, over 100 volunteers train as “Beach Naturalists” and walk local beaches (Golden Gardens, Olympic Sculpture Park pocket beach, and Seahurst Park, to name a few), and answer questions from the public about the marine environments and animals. They offer tips on how to enjoy the beach while still being a good steward of the environment. Last year the Seattle Aquarium’s Beach Naturalists had 58,000 interactions with Seattle’s beachgoers.

Conservation/Research programs: Does the aquarium have any? Is there any local emphasis?

Information about the local orca population

Information about the local orca population. Photo credit: Allie Tripp.

Since the Aquarium’s transition in 2010, they have “only just been finding their conservation voice,” Wharton says. The Aquarium’s number one conservation focus is currently Ocean Acidification and Climate Change. Wharton notes that most visitors to the aquarium know a bit more than the average public about the ocean and climate change, but the aquarium wants them to know even more. The mission of the Seattle Aquarium is “inspiring conservation of our marine environment,” and Wharton says the most important place to do that is within their audiences and visitors. Conservation awareness, in the eyes of the aquarium, also involves ocean and science literacy, as well as an affective desire to make a difference.

The Aquarium also seeks to serve as a platform for local and regional scientists to share their research. They currently are working with NOAA and several other aquariums to express NOAA’s vast array of scientific data about the ocean in a way that people can connect with and understand. The Aquarium also works closely with Dr. Richard Feely at the NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory and other local scientists, bringing their important research on the ocean to the captive audiences at the aquarium.

The Aquarium also heavily emphasizes education about the local Puget Sound orca population. The aquariums Orca Family Activity Center allows visitors to learn about the local pods of orcas, and what can be done to help this struggling population.

Rescue/Rehabilitation: Does the aquarium have any rehabilitation services for animals?

The Seattle Aquarium does not currently promote any rehabilitation services for animals. They do, however, participate in AZA Taxon Advisory Groups (TAGs), Scientific Advisory Groups (SAGs), and Species Survival Plans (SSPs), which means that occasionally, a wild-rescue animal may be placed in their care for a short- or long-term stay.

Quality of exhibits: Are the animals healthy? Do they seem to have adequate space and clean exhibits? Does the aquarium have marine mammals?

The Seattle Aquarium has six major exhibits featuring touch tanks, open-air exhibits, as well as traditional tank viewing exhibits. The Aquarium features no cetaceans (whales, dolphins, or porpoises). They do have several sea mammals, namely fur seals, harbor seals, sea otters, and river otters.

Touch tank.

Touch tank. Photo credit: Allie Tripp.

The most popular exhibits are the touch tank, where visitors can interact hands-on with starfish and other marine creatures in shallow tidal pools. “This exhibit is a really good example of our education attitude,” Wharton says. The Aquarium staffers around the pool answer questions and encourage shy visitors to roll up their sleeves and get their hands wet. The otter exhibits are also particularly popular, as otters are often thought of some of the most social and interactive marine animals. The Aquariums new harbor seal exhibit has also become quite popular. Wharton notes that the seating in this new exhibit allows guests to step back from the flow, and, if it is a nice day, take in some fresh air outside.

Financials: Is the aquarium for-profit? What does it cost to visit?

The Seattle Aquarium is managed by the nonprofit Seattle Aquarium Foundation. A visit costs $21.95 for adults and $14.95 for students, with discounts for seniors (65+) and active military members. For visitors to Seattle, a pass to the aquarium can be combined with several other local attractions like a harbor cruise, a trip to the top of the Space Needle, and several other museums.

Community Engagement: Does the organization make access to its facilities & programs available to its entire local community? Do they offer any special programs for underrepresented or underprivileged groups?

The Seattle Aquarium partners with more than 130 local groups (clubs, youth programs, community centers) to offer free and discounted admission to people all of all backgrounds. Last year the aquarium hosted an open house in conjunction with these partner groups that was attended by 800 people speaking sixteen different languages. The aquarium had volunteers who spoke twelve of these languages and had printed materials in several others. “We are trying to remove barriers for people so that they can come to the aquarium and experience it on their terms,” Wharton says. “People from different cultures connect with the ocean in different ways.”


  • The Seattle Aquarium puts a great emphasis on person-to-person interaction. The potential for great interaction would be enhanced if visitors were told at the front desk/when they purchase tickets, to seek out Aquarium staff and volunteers with questions.
  • The Aquarium is fairly expensive to visit, but a really feel-good experience that’s worth the money if you are a tourist or local who can afford it. Free and discounted tickets are available to local groups with income barriers.
  • The Seattle Aquarium supports some fantastic community outreach. The Beach Naturalist program is a perfect way for the aquarium to connect with locals and encourage everyone, even those who don’t visit the aquarium, to be better stewards of the Pacific Northwest marine environment.
Sea otter exhibit.

Sea otter exhibit. Photo credit: Allie Tripp.

Copyright © 2014 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Allie is currently pursuing her Masters in Public Administration at the University of Washington Evans School of Public Affairs. She received her BA from Boston College and is passionate about the environment, social policy, and education. .


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  1. Seattle Aquarium featured on “Marine Science Today” website | March 28, 2014