A Whole New World

A new aquarium adds underwater exploration to a day at the Kansas City Zoo

At the entrance to the Kansas City Zoo, a huge banner shouts out appreciation to residents of Clay and Jackson counties for their support. As a resident of Platte County, I wondered why our neighbors in Clay County are getting all the love.

I found out. I’ll share more on that later and how Platte County can get in on the good times.

But I was at the zoo to visit some of its newest critters, including a green sea turtle named Tortellini and an orange lobster named Larry.

They are among the 8,000 residents of the brand-new Sobela Ocean Aquarium that opened Labor Day weekend. At the same time, the zoo changed its name to the Kansas City Zoo and Aquarium.

Just a few steps away from the Helzberg Penguin Plaza, the Sobela Ocean Aquarium is also a gift from the Shirley and Barnett Helzberg Foundation. The name, Sobela, represents the first initials of their six grandchildren.

The habitats include a mangrove forest where a toco toucan and cotton-top tamarins, a critically endangered primate, bring a real-world dimension to the exhibit. Touch tanks allow kids and adults the opportunity to hold hermit and horseshoe crabs, sea stars and sea urchins. Tropical lagoons, coral reefs and kelp forests bring the total number of exhibits to 34.

“Our goal is education and to remind the public that even though we are in the Midwest, far from an ocean, what we put in our rivers here eventually ends up in the ocean and affect these animals,” says Sean Putney, executive director of the Kansas City Zoo and Aquarium.

Among the more celebrated animals in the aquarium is a rare orange lobster found this spring in a seafood delivery in Hamburg, NY. Rather than selling him for dinner, employees named him Larry and donated him to the Aquarium of Niagara, who found him a permanent home here in Kansas City. Only one in 30 million lobsters are orange.

There’s also a wonderful green sea turtle named Tortellini. Tortellini was hit by a boat and now has floating issues, so she can’t dive for food. She will rely on employees at the aquarium to provide the fish, squid and clams to munch on. And get this: Tortellini likes her vegetables, including broccoli, peppers, zucchini and the like.

Tortellini lives happily with bonnethead sharks and southern stingrays and teaches about the frequent harmful interaction of humans with ocean wildlife.

A giant Pacific octopus fills one tank and two rescued sea otters play happily together. They also have their own tank because it turns out that despite their adorable cuteness, sea otters can be rather mean and don’t play well with other animals.

Admission to the aquarium is included with zoo admission. A timed entrance will minimize overcrowding for the first few weeks. Find details at kansascityzoo.org or (816) 595-1234.

So here’s the deal on Clay County residents getting free admission, and what Platte County residents can do.

In November 2011, Clay County voters approved a 1/8 cent zoological tax, along with Jackson County voters, creating the Zoological District. Among the perks Clay County residents receive are:

·      50% off daily admission

  • Four free admission days throughout the year
  • Free mobile zoos to bring animals to your school or library
  • Free field trips for schools.

Clay County residents should receive a “Postcard to Adventure” in their mailboxes four times a year. The next one will be sent in October and will be good for free admission on any day in November or December. More information at kansascityzoo.org/about/zoological-district

So how can Platte County residents get in on the deal? Talk to your county commissioners. Back in 2010 and 2011, zoo officials reached out to county leadership in five metro counties to place the matter on the ballot. Platte County commissioners at the time had concerns about language in the legislation and chose not to place it on the ballot.

If you’re wondering what distinguishes the new Sobela Ocean Aquarium from the SeaLife Aquarium at Crown Center, well, plenty. Opened in 2012, SeaLife features both freshwater animals from the Missouri River and oceans. It has about 5,000 animals in 30 exhibits compared to Sobela’s 8,000 animals in 34. SeaLife is 260,000 gallons compared to Sobela’s 650,000 gallons.

But SeaLife comes with LegoLand next door. visitsealife.com/kansas-city; (816) 471-4386.

Both make a wonderful experience for families throughout the Northland.

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