Renovated Rocky Shores habitat now open at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium

Huge crowds gathered this morning for the Grand Re-Opening of the renovated marine mammal complex – and Tacoma Rainiers’ mascot Rhubarb tossed out the ceremonial first fish

Just in time for Mother’s Day Weekend, the renovated Rocky Shores complex at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium is completely open and filled with marine mammals and sea birds that will delight visitors.

Plus, Sunday is Mother’s Day, and that’s always a wonderful time for the family to get together at one of the Northwest’s premier attractions.

During Grand Re-Opening ceremonies this morning, Tacoma Rainiers’ baseball team mascot Rhubarb the Reindeer threw out the ceremonial first fish to Chinook, a 780-pound California sea lion.

Rocky Shores habitat at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium

A huge crowd gathered for the festivities to celebrate the $2.7 million Rocky Shores renovation financed with bond funds approved by Tacoma voters in 2014.

Metro Parks Tacoma Board of Commissioners President Andrea Smith thanked Tacoma residents for their longstanding support of the zoo and Metro Parks to help pay for projects like the Rocky Shores renovation that make a difference in the lives of the animals that live there and the visitors who come to see them.

And, wow, did the visitors get a treat! Not only did Chinook show off some of the behaviors that help keepers care for him – like moving from point to point and going to a target, four – count ‘em FOUR! – Pacific walruses swam together in the newly refurbished 125.500-gallon pool.

The walruses appeared to be taking part in a choreographed underwater ballet as they swam together, mesmerizing crowds of adults and children who gathered in the underwater viewing area to watch them through new, crystal-clear windows.

Around the corner, sea otters Sekiu and Libby splished and splashed and tumbled round and round in their pool. The two females are already fast buddies. Sekiu arrived in Tacoma earlier this week from Seattle Aquarium. Sea otters are gregarious animals that live in groups in the wild, and Libby now has a companion.

Next door, a large complement of sea birds – tufted and horned puffins and common murres – delighted visitors as they hopped off land and into the water, then hopped out of the water and back onto shore. Puffins flapped their wings, droplets of water cascading off them to the delight of photographers gathered at the glass to watch. And children oohed and ahhed at their little orange webbed feet paddling in the water.

But while there are plenty of animal antics and behaviors to watch and enjoy, there’s also a strong conservation message embedded in all of the fun at Rocky Shores.

“We want our guests to know that we share the shore with many of these animals, and the actions we take can affect the health of the waters they live in,” said Rocky Shores senior staff biologist Lisa Triggs. She spoke to visitors about cutting down on the single-use plastic bags and other items; purchasing sustainable seafood in grocery stores and restaurants; and taking care to avoid letting oil or other hazardous substances get into storm drains, where they can eventually be washed into the sea.

Rocky Shores habitat at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium

The renovated Rocky Shores area features a number of improvements, including:

  • Brand new, crystal-clear underwater viewing windows for enjoying the graceful ballet-like movements of massive walruses;
  • Better sight lines for watching the antics of playful sea otters;
  • A redesigned home for California sea lions and harbor seals;
  • Covered stadium-style seating for watching animals and listening to keeper talks;
  • A repaired and renewed 125,500-gallon pool for the zoo’s four walruses, featuring more haul-out areas in an exhibit that resembles the features of a rocky coastal area;
  • Updated graphics and colorful murals that tell the story of interconnectedness between humans and the sea, with messages about how humans can help care for the ocean and the animals that call it home;
  • A new wheelchair and stroller friendly pathway that gives visitors a faster trip to the Arctic Tundra home of majestic polar bears.

The work also includes crucial updates to the water filtration and animal life-support systems necessary to keep the marine mammals in an optimal salt-water environment. Other modifications added health and safety features for both the animal residents and the zoo staff members who care for them.

It’s the first large project completed at the zoo with funds from the 2014 bond issue. The Pacific Seas Aquarium is well under construction next door, and is scheduled to open in the summer of 2018.

The bond issue also has financed projects across the city, including helping to pay for the People’s Community Center pool, a new multipurpose field at South End Recreation & Adventure Campus and many smaller projects, with more to come.

Rocky Shores habitat at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium

At Rocky Shores, staff biologists and members of the zoo’s Conservation Engagement team are eager to show off the renewed habitat and delighted with the ways in which it connects visitors even more closely to marine mammals like sea lions, sea otters and harbor seals, plus sea birds that can often be found in our Puget Sound backyard. Pacific walruses, of course, are native to waters a bit north of us in Arctic and subarctic waters off Alaska.

Coming face-to-face with a 3,300-pound walrus through a viewing window, watching a sea otter groom herself, or hearing the throaty barking of a California sea lion are among the amazing experiences visitors won’t soon forget, said Conservation Engagement Manager Karen Povey.

“Now, we’ve put a sharpened focus on what these animals can teach us and how our actions affect the ocean and shore we share with them,” she added.

“We want visitors to know more about the high quality of care Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium provides for the animals that live here, as well about conservation actions we all can take to help their counterparts in the wild.”

Alan Varsik, director of Zoological and Environmental Education for Metro Parks Tacoma, hopes visitors will go home knowing more about the zoo’s long legacy of marine animal conservation.

That history has included providing a home for orphaned animals like walruses and sea otters; research to advance scientific knowledge of marine mammals; and participation in Species Survival Plan® programs to increase species populations in North American zoos and aquariums.

Rocky Shores habitat at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium

And the zoo – through The Zoo Society’s Dr. Holly Reed Wildlife Conservation Fund – has helped fund a number of marine mammal conservation projects, including partnering to support studies at the Alaska Department of Fish and Wildlife’s walrus sanctuary at Round Island.

“All of this work, all of this passion is on exhibit every day at Rocky Shores,” Varsik said. “We hope that visitors will come and enjoy the animals, learn from our staff and leave inspired to take conservation action.”


Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, the Northwest’s only combined zoo and aquarium, practices and promotes responsible stewardship of the world’s resources through education, conservation, research and recreational opportunities. The zoo, a division of Metro Parks Tacoma, is accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) and the Alliance of Marine Mammal Parks and Aquariums (AMMPA).