Air travelers, meet the sea

Amid the bustle at John Wayne Airport and announcements alerting travelers to impending departures, a different mode of travel was showcased Monday — water.

ExplorOcean, a Newport Beach-based ocean literacy center, hosted a press event commemorating the opening of its latest exhibit, "Inspire, Educate, Explore." The 11 12-by-6-foot cases, displaying navigation artifacts and ship models in bottles, can be viewed by visitors in the walkway between the ticketing lobbies of terminals B and C until Nov. 15.

The maritime installation spotlights the organization's offshoots, the Ocean Literacy Center, Adventure Outpost and Balboa Fun Zone. Helping to usher it in Monday were Newport Beach Mayor Keith Curry, airport director Alan Murphy, ExplorOcean Chief Executive Tom Pollack, and Gary Sherwin, president and CEO of Newport Beach and Company.

"When we built Terminal C, which we built just about two years ago, we built this space in here to highlight areas in Orange County," Murphy said. "This is the next step in what we hope will be an ongoing opportunity for venues to really promote the great arts and culture we have here."

The Segerstrom Center for the Arts and the Muckenthaler Cultural Center in Fullerton were previously featured in the sunlight-filled bridge. Murphy believes ocean-related art doesn't always get the respect it deserves.

According to Curry, ExplorOcean has provided an educational resource to young people by stressing the importance of marine conservation. It also is popular among tourists, who might have bypassed Balboa Island otherwise but stay to enjoy the center as well as local beaches, restaurants and shops.

"We are excited that ExplorOcean is going to be the representation for the city of Newport Beach that people see when they get off the airplanes," Curry said. "[It] is an integral and important part of our community that is making a great statement on the peninsula and is going to help revitalize it. We're excited that it's being featured here."

ExplorOcean is in the middle of a campaign to raise funds for a new facility, said Rochelle McReynolds, chief development officer. Its current home was built in 1985 and is small compared to the large site on which it resides.

Pollack anticipates that the building will be gutted in 2016 and the new center opened in 2018. Architectural plans depict a higher structure, two theaters and ExplorOcean Academy — floating classrooms in a docked ship — across almost 40,000 square feet.

He considers the exhibit instrumental in whetting the appetites of the more than 7 million tourists who flock to Newport Beach every year — many of whom use John Wayne as a transit center.

"It is meant to showcase what we have and what we are going to be," he said, gesturing toward a part of the new installation that features a miniature Balboa Island ferry and photographs of a mechanical bull shark and water slide. Nautical enthusiasts can also read about plankton and crab nets and view a Secchi disk, used to measure water clarity, and a spinning globe.

Sherwin deems the expansion one of the city's most "ambitious projects" in the coming five years. He hopes "Inspire, Educate, Explore" will generate buzz around the developments coming down the pipeline and increase foot traffic in the area by generating awareness and interest.

"If you say, 'What is the most important part of Newport Beach being Newport Beach?', it's really the Fun Zone because of its historical connection," he said. "Also, you have that wonderful old-school waterfront, Balboa bars and wonderful memories of living in Southern California — that's the embodiment of the Fun Zone."

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