Morro Bay eyes redesign for its waterfront aquarium

A graphic concept for a revamped Morro Bay Aquarium by Cal Poly architecture student Remy CantoAdams.
A graphic concept for a revamped Morro Bay Aquarium by Cal Poly architecture student Remy CantoAdams.

A new Morro Bay aquarium could feature freshwater and saltwater viewing tanks, a second-story observation deck with a spectacular bay view, classroom space for children to dissect squid and an underground research lab.

These ideas were highlighted in a conceptual model that Cal Poly architecture student Remy CantoAdams presented to the Morro Bay City Council on Tuesday.

“Visitors of the aquarium would take a journey through the story of the local watershed,” he said. “It would educate visitors not only about animals but the ecological importance and impact of water on local environment.”

An official new aquarium project proposal hasn’t been presented yet for the Embarcadero site where the longtime Morro Bay Aquarium lease expires in 2018.

But the nonprofit Central Coast Aquarium of Avila Beach, in partnership with Cal Poly and the National Estuary Program, announced at Tuesday’s council meeting it expects to submit a formal proposal to remodel the existing aquarium by an October deadline.

CantoAdams completed his schematic as part of an assignment for a second-year architecture design class taught by Cal Poly professor Howard Weisenthal. His project was selected for the presentation from models drafted by 17 other students for a new Morro Bay aquarium.

CantoAdams’ concept borrows from the Central Coast Aquarium in Avila Beach, which serves as a marine life education and viewing center — featuring tanks with sea life such as octopus, leopard sharks, garibaldi and clownfish.

The rendering also includes a driveway that would allow direct access from a boat dock, and three state-of-the-art research labs.

The Central Coast Aquarium and Cal Poly’s marine sciences program have partnered in research at the Avila Beach facility at 50 San Juan St.

The Morro Bay aquarium would be advantageous because of its location on the bay, offering direct access to boats in transporting materials, tools and samples. The Avila Beach site is several hundred yards from the shoreline.

Tara Malzone, executive director of the Central Coast Aquarium, said her vision for Morro Bay is to be a hub for marine education, outreach, research and conservation efforts.

A new aquarium on the Embarcadero would replace a facility now owned by Dean and Bertha Tyler, who are in their 90s. They began their lease in 1968.

They opted not to renovate as part of a lease-renewal requirement from the city, citing high costs of the new construction.

“When we were considering responding to the city’s request for proposal, we knew one of our goals would be to honor and build upon what the Tylers have accomplished over the past 46 years,” Malzone said.

However, many of the details — including cost, how the project will be financed and specifically how it will look — are still being discussed.

The price tag to revamp the aquarium is estimated to be in the millions of dollars, and Malzone said she doesn’t know yet how much money it will take.

The council’s request for proposals emphasizes the council would like to see the site remain a marine aquarium or a marine educational facility, or both.

Mayor Jamie Irons said a new aquarium could become a “focal point” and a destination for visitors and local residents.

“Is the Central Coast Aquarium capable of getting the funding necessary to build it?” Irons said. “We know they’re very serious about it. We know they’ll be submitting a request for proposal and reaching out to philanthropists.”

The Central Coast Aquarium coordinators would bring an approach to Morro Bay that emphasizes learning opportunities for children.

Those include ocean boating trips in which the group uses a trawl net to collect and identify fish and a workshop for prekindergarten children to touch slippery sea stars and spiny sea urchins.

Council member Nancy Johnson called CantoAdams’ model “visionary and exciting, although maybe a bit ambitious” for what the center may be able to build.

She added that the partnerships will be a “major collaborative effort” among several groups to cover the cost and shouldn’t be limited to the three organizations currently on board.

Johnson envisions an aquarium that’s larger in scale and offers more than the Avila Beach operation, possibly including sea lions to attract young visitors.

“I feel an aquarium is an important tourist attraction for Morro Bay,” Johnson said. “For years my grandchildren have enjoyed the current one.”

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune