Morro Bay aquarium called ‘America’s worst’ will soon close — but is it really the end?

The city of Morro Bay could soon be without an aquarium for the first time in nearly 60 years.

But as the Morro Bay Aquarium, run by the Tyler family since 1960, prepares to close its doors at 595 Embarcadero in September, a three-way partnership is looking at the possibility of opening a new, state-of-the-art marine science center in its stead.

That partnership — between Central Coast Aquarium, Cal Poly and the city of Morro Bay — is exploring the feasibility of just such a project.

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Caleb Sanchez, 2, touches a sea star held by Maureen Abert, aquarium coordinator at Central Coast Aquarium in Avila Beach. The organization is launching a campaign to raise money for a new, state-of-the-art aquarium in Morro Bay. David Middlecamp dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

Feasibility study

The proposed aquarium and marine science center would be run by Central Coast Aquarium. Executive director Christine Johnson is working to secure enough funding to finish a feasibility study that would determine whether an aquarium in Morro Bay is economically viable and whether the Central Coast Aquarium, which has a facility in Avila Beach, would be able to run another one.

Johnson said she believes the need is there.

“Central Coast Aquarium is the only hands-on marine science education for the public in the whole county. And we’re a 100-mile coastline,” she said.

Johnson said she has already raised $23,000, including $10,000 from the city of Morro Bay, to fund the first phase of the study. And she’s working to come up with the balance.

“Right now, I’m actively fundraising to raise $21,000. Then we can complete the feasibility study,” Johnson said.

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‘An aquarium without walls’

The proposed aquarium is still in the early stages of development, but Johnson’s eyes light up as she describes its potential.

“It would be almost an aquarium without walls in some ways,” she said.

That’s because Johnson envisions the aquarium in Morro Bay serving as a hub for marine science education out on the bay itself, with trained staff giving guided tours on tour boats or in kayaks.

“We see that as a very different kind of aquarium experience,” Johnson said.

She said the first floor of the aquarium would hold the exhibits and tanks, while the second floor could be rented out for activities, “and it will have an amazing view.”

Eric Endersby, Morro Bay harbor director, said he envisioned the new facility as “a pretty cool, modern small Morro Bay ecosystem-based aquarium.”

“I think it’s a great concept (Johnson has) landed on there,” he said.

Endersby said that with the rise of active recreational tourism, such as stand-up paddling and kayaking, the aquarium could meet an underserved market.

“There’s a pretty fair amount of demand out there that you don’t hear a lot about,” he said. “You’ve got all of nature as a giant touch tank.”

Educational opportunity

Lexie Bell, executive director for the Morro Bay Estuary National Program, said that while her organization isn’t partnered with Central Coast Aquarium on this current venture, the two entities have a good working history.

“I think having an aquarium here is a nice way for people to better understand what’s happening underneath that beautiful water they see out the window at the restaurant,” she said. “We only have so much capacity in our organization (for education outreach). ...

“So to have another partner that’s interested in supporting that side ... would be a real benefit to the community, a benefit to the bay.”

While the Avila Beach location, with a nearby playground, is an ideal spot for preschool and elementary school visits, Johnson said the Morro Bay site could provide a better venue for middle and high school students. The Avila Beach site serves 4,500 students a year, and the Morro Bay site would allow them to serve even more, she said.

Then there’s the research potential.

Already, the Central Coast Aquarium partners extensively with Cal Poly, with the university providing the aquarium with interns and a steady supply of saltwater.

While the proposed Morro Bay facility is still in the early stage of development, “We always welcome the opportunity to explore how we can improve the programs we offer our students,” Dean Wendt, dean of Cal Poly’s College of Science and Mathematics, said in an email.

Johnson said Cal Poly is “already doing so much research in the bay and the water around Morro Bay, and here (in Avila Beach), too.” The Morro Bay site would give the university not only a waterfront research outpost, but also access to that lot’s dock space,” she said.

“Cal Poly has said they would like to have one of their research vessels there,” Johnson said.

The end of an era

The closure of the Morro Bay Aquarium marks a bittersweet milestone for the city landmark.

Opened by Dean and Bertha Tyler in 1960, the Morro Bay Aquarium was rescuing and rehabilitating marine mammals “when nobody was doing it,” Endersby said.

“Before the Marine Mammal Center even existed, they were the marine mammal center,” he said.

But the Tylers drew heavy criticism from animal rights activists for the conditions in which they kept the aquarium’s famous sea lions. Earlier in 2018, VICE New called the Morro Bay Aquarium “America’s worst aquarium.”

Johnson acknowledged that the old facility has a mixed reputation, with both supporters and detractors.

“I do know many of our local visitors loved our outgoing aquarium,” she said. “I think it’s the setting today. Perhaps we look back and say that’s not appropriate.”

Endersby agreed, saying the city’s decision not to renew the Tylers’ lease on the space was rooted in “not seeing the sea lions there any more.”

However, Endersby said he hopes that the new aquarium recognizes the Tylers’ contributions in educating “generations of people.”

“I always put a plug in for the Tylers because they are great people,” he said. “Whatever it gets built as, it is my intent and hope that the positive aspects of the Tylers’ legacy is honored and represented there.”

An anchor for the Embarcadero

Johnson and Endersby both expressed confidence that the new aquarium would serve as an anchor on Morro Bay’s Embarcadero, drawing more tourists. Johnson said the old aquarium attracted an estimated 200,000 visitors a year, out of the city’s million annual visitors overall.

“Certainly, we do believe that a state-of-the-art modern facility would bring in even more people that were visiting the aquarium in the past,” Johnson said.

But before that facility can be built, before the design work even begins, Johnson said she needs the public’s support in finishing the feasibility study.

“It’s a low risk. It may be your name isn’t on a wall, but without (a) feasibility (study) we’ll never know,” she said.

Of course, the feasibility study will take weeks to finish, and construction of an actual aquarium years to complete.

“It would almost take a miracle to have a new facility in two years,” Johnson said, adding that four years is probably more realistic.

So what will become of 595 Embarcadero in the interim?

“Right now, the Central Coast Aquarium is working on a time to begin negotiating with the city ... on what short-term plan we can come up with, and how we could provide some level of education about marine science using our mobile tank that we set up on weekends, busy weekends,” Johnson said.

Endersby said the city is very supportive of that effort.

“We don’t want an empty lease site,” he said.

The city will likely lease the location to Central Coast Aquarium for only a nominal amount while the feasibility and design work gets done.

“Our interest is seeing them succeed in building the bigger project, and the less financial strain we can put them under the better it’s going to be,” Endersby said. “It’s an important, high-priority project.”

For information about the feasibility study, contact Christine Johnson at 805-595-7280, extension 1002, or christine@centralcoastaquarium.com.

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Andrew Sheeler: 805-781-7934, @andrewsheeler