Walk-Through Aquarium Under Consideration for Pier

Times Staff Writer

A walk-through aquarium with more than 2,000 fish, possibly one of the first in the country, eventually could become one of Santa Monica's beachfront attractions, officials say.

The city is negotiating with the San Francisco-based Underwater World Co. to build the aquarium on a one-acre plot of land on the north side of Santa Monica Pier.

City officials see the project as a way to bolster a major campaign already under way to restore and revive the pier, one of Santa Monica's most important landmarks.

Australian Attraction

If plans are approved, Underwater World would spend an estimated $12 million to $16 million to build the aquarium, which is patterned after a 3-year-old attraction in Auckland, New Zealand. It would consist of a 400-foot clear acrylic looped tunnel with moving and stationary walkways that guide visitors through huge tanks full of fish.

The design, Underwater World President Clive Jones said, is aimed at creating for visitors the illusion of walking into the Pacific Ocean.

"You are inside and the fish are looking at you. The water surrounds you. Sharks, rays and fish are on each side of you and going over you," Jones said in an telephone interview from San Francisco.

"Rather than looking at fish in square tanks, you are seeing them as a scuba diver would."

The concept is the brainchild of diver Kelly Tarlton, who Jones describes as the "Jacques Cousteau of the South Seas," who built the New Zealand prototype.

Santa Monica City Manager John Jalili said that if negotiations prove successful, he hopes The city owns the land that Underwater World is eyeing and would lease it long-term to the company for an undetermined price. The city and the company then would share the revenues, Jalili said.

Jalili said Underwater World is proposing the construction of a single-story 30,000-square-foot building to house the aquarium. The building would face the ocean and its architecture would complement the pier.

"This would probably be a very successful project for them and for us," Jalili said. "It would have a major impact on the renovation of the pier."

He said the aquarium would help attract people back to the pier and benefit area educational programs.

The company is only just starting its environmental impact studies, and if the project is approved, construction probably would not start until 1989, Jalili said.

Jones said the aquarium would hold 1 million gallons of water and 2,000 to 3,000 fish from 40 to 50 species indigenous to Southern California, including sharks, rays, colorful rock fish and eels.

$4-Million Operating Budget

Marine biologists from Underwater World and commercial fishermen would catch the specimens, Jones said.

In addition to construction and other start-up costs totaling $12 million to $16 million, Jones estimates for his firm an annual operating budget of close to $4 million.

Underwater World is also negotiating with San Francisco to build a similar aquarium at that city's Pier 39. Jones said a "more difficult political climate" there--including this month's mayoral race--has caused some delays, however, and it is not known when that project would be completed.

"We are real pleased with the cooperation from Santa Monica," Jones said. "And we think this (the aquarium project) would be a good way to get the pier restoration off on the right foot."

Willing to Take Risk

He said his company is willing to "take the up-front risk" of putting an expensive "quality attraction" at the pier area because of confidence the pier eventually will recapture its previous success.

A long-awaited plan for restoring the pier has been completed by the Santa Monica Pier Restoration Corp., a nonprofit agency set up by the city to oversee renovation of the pier.

Under the plan, the city would spend $7 million over three years to reenforce the pier's platform and upgrade sewage and utilities. At the same time, $16.5 million in private commercial development would be sought for about 150,000 square feet on the pier.

Restoration Corp. officials hope the plan will allow the pier--operating at an annual deficit of more than $900,000--to break even and eventually generate about $450,000 in revenue.

The pier renovation plan has been submitted to the City Council. But council members last week decided to hold study sessions and a public hearing before voting on the plan.

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