Aquarium to open outdoor exhibits

Sea otters will be among the five exhibits available to visitors when the Oregon Coast Aquariums reopens on Monday. The popular Newport attraction closed March 16 and reopens its outdoor exhibits Aug. 10, with tickets available online only at aquarium.org.

NEWPORT — The aquarium is reopening!

The Oregon Coast Aquarium shut its doors March 16 in response to the burgeoning COVID-19 pandemic. On Monday, Aug. 10, it reopens all five outdoor exhibits at about half the ticket price for regular admission. The reopening follows new guidance released by the Oregon Health Authority on Tuesday allowing zoos, museums, drive-in movie theaters, raceways, outdoor gardens and aquariums to open non-interactive exhibits during phase one of the state’s reopening plan. Previous guidance did not allow such facilities to reopen until phase two.

Beginning at 10 a.m. Monday, interpretive experts will provide guests with information at the otter, vulture, pinniped (seals and seal lions), seabird aviary and rocky habitat exhibits. Groups will be limited to 10 people, with one group admitted every 15 minutes — that’s 40 guests per hour, or about 240 a day, a drastic reduction from the aquarium’s typical daily summer traffic of thousands.

Regardless of those reduced numbers, staff and volunteers are elated to be able to bring the aquarium experience back to the public, President and CEO Carrie Lewis said. “Since we got the news (Tuesday) night that we are able to reopen under these guidelines, I’ve seen a shift in the energy of the staff that is still working here. Normally, this is a super busy time for us, full of energy, and people, and kids laughing and lots of activity, and it’s just been very quiet, so it’s going to be great to have people here again,” Lewis said.

“This is actually a really interesting model for us. It’s going to be an intimate experience for our visitors. Normally, our summers are so busy, and this is going to be a completely different, special experience. We’re excited about it, and our volunteers are ready to get back to interpreting our exhibits.”

Volunteers will provide guests with insight into some of the aquarium’s biggest draws.

Lewis said, “Our otter exhibit I think is probably one of the most popular. We have northern sea otters, and they like to frolic and play, and they’re pretty attached to their adoring fans. They’ll come right up to the window and follow and play with you.”

The seabird aviary is the largest in North America, with two large pools hosting tufted puffins, horned puffins, rhinoceros auklets, pigeon guillemots and common murres. The vulture exhibit features a pair of turkey vulture siblings, Olive and Ichabod, who were taken as hatchlings into a human home and later turned over to wildlife rehabilitation specialists. However, they’d become acclimated to humans and were unable to be released into the wild, so they found a permanent home at the aquarium in 2009.

Lewis said the aquarium opened an expanded viewing area for the seals and sea lions a few years ago. “Visitors can get up close and personal with the pinnipeds. They’re pretty excited about anyone that walks by, even staff or grounds people — when we’re walking by, they’ll just come right over to the window. They’re very imprinted by people,” she said.

The rocky habitat includes the intertidal life normally found in the aquarium’s rocky shores exhibit, with the exception that the touch pool won’t be accessible to touching due to COVID precautions.

Lewis and her staff are conscientious about public safety. Along with indoor exhibits, the cafe and play areas will remain closed. Face coverings are required for guests — staff and volunteers will be wearing them, too — and social distancing guidelines will be observed.

Lewis said, “I’m just so grateful for the support we’ve had from our local and extended community. The minute we closed, we went into emergency operations, and people were so generous with their thoughts, their kind words and their giving to make sure the animals are taken care of. It means a lot to me, and to our board and our staff, to have such a supportive community.”

Tickets are just $15, and to reduce chances for exposure, they’re only available for purchase online at www.aquarium.org. The aquarium is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

It’s possible indoor exhibits could be back by September — Lewis said they’ll fully reopen once the county enters phase two, and the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners has applied to do so on Aug. 24.

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