The proposed new Morro Bay Aquarium would be a unique and dazzling addition to the Embarcadero, after concept designs were submitted to the City by the Central Coast Aquarium of Avila Beach.

Designed by RRM Design of San Luis Obispo, the building is a marvel of steel and glass with exhibit tanks designed by Tenji Aquarium Design.

The concept drawings are the latest milestone in a years-long effort to build a new, state-of-the-art aquarium and bring a legitimate tourist attraction to the waterfront.

The March 10 presentation was a follow up to a March 2019 presentation of a feasibility study and partnership agreement between the City, CCA and Cal Poly’s Center for Coastal Marine Sciences.

That meeting set down several milestones the CCA was to meet and did meet, culminating in the concept designs. The preliminary cost estimates are between $10 million and $12 million, which must be raised entirely through private donations.

Over the past year, CCA has submitted a concept/philanthropic plan; a business marketing plan; updated the concept/philanthropic plan; and issued a final report on moving forward in the form of the conceptual designs.

Last November, CCA, RRM, City staff and representatives from Cal Poly, the National Estuary Program, and State Parks came together to brainstorm design concepts in a “charrettes” process to come up with the conceptual design that the staff called a “significant step forward for the proposed project.”

According to the designers, “A new aquarium in Morro Bay tells the story that no other community can tell: the story of two extreme and exciting environmental contrasts where the calmness of the estuary differs drastically from the wildness of the open ocean and how the marine species depend upon each environment to thrive.

“The goal of the aquarium is to focus on the unique estuary and open ocean environment by providing opportunities for immersive, interactive marine science learning in order to encourage good stewardship of the estuary and the ocean now and into the future.”

The project renderings show a modern design with lots of glass walls and partial ceiling, a large high-ceilinged atrium at the entrance with a stuffed basking shark hanging from the ceiling. Visitors would meander through the bottom floor passing by numerous tanks presumably filled with local marine life.

The design envisions some 20, individual, hands-on, interactive exhibits on the first floor, including one exhibit that extends outdoors and can be viewed from the Harborwalk by the public, according to the staff report.

The second floor has classroom and meeting space, a small administrative and volunteer office area, and open spaces that would feature temporary exhibits or interactive wet and dry exploration tables.

There would be a new public pier and floating docks that Cal Poly would use for its marine study program boat. The Marina Street road end would be turned into a plaza after the new aquarium extends to cover about half of it. Several parking spaces would be lost.

A sublevel basement would house the “back of the house” life support systems for the aquarium and help maximize the first level exhibit space for the visitor.

According to the report, CCA and City staff are reviewing issues related to seawater intake and outfall with the Central Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board in regard to permitting, as well as potential seawater discharge to the City sewer system if the system can sufficiently process the amount of seawater proposed for discharge.”

The current project got its start in Fall 2013 when the City asked for proposals to redevelop the aquarium lease site. CCA and former aquarium owner, the late-Dean Tyler, were the only submitters and the Council chose CCA’s proposal.

That decision sealed the fate of the old aquarium that had been in business since the 1950s but had received harsh criticism for displaying performing seals and sea lions in a tank that many thought was too small, but met the minimum requirements for such facilities (as per U.S. Department of Agriculture rules).

The Morro Bay Aquarium’s two sea lions and a harbor seal were sent to live at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, Calif., in April 2018 and the aquarium closed for good in October 2018.

The building has sat empty since then but the Harbor Department is in the process of leasing it out on a temporary basis to the Three Stacks and a Rock brew pub, which plans to do extensive remodeling and open for business until such time as the CCA’s project is ready to start.

The plan is to completely demolish the old building. City documents have predicted it could take 5 years to reach that point.

According to an article in the Tribune on the March 10 meeting, Mayor John Headding said, “We need this in this community. It has significant possibility to draw tourism and exposure to a wonderful undersea experience. This moves the needle and it’s nice to see this quickly moving forward.”

The Council directed the Harbor Department to write a new “Consent of Landowner” agreement and return sometime in the next few months for approval. That document would be expected to set new milestones to keep the project moving along.

Meanwhile, the CCA plans to use the conceptual designs as a basis to start the capital fundraising efforts.

If readers would like to donate to the cause they should contact CCA Executive Director Christine Johnson via email at: Christine@centralcoastaquarium.com or call (805) 595-7280, Ext. 1002. Donations are tax deductible.