Unique underwater cylinder with 360 degree viewing in an African Penguin exhibit by Martin

October 8th is African Penguin Awareness Day.  To celebrate this day I want to share a feature in an African penguin exhibit that brings visitors and penguins closer together: a unique 360 degree all-acrylic crawl-through viewing cylinder. You can experience this crawl-through cylinder at the recently opened Penguin Playhouse at Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

wild-design was part of the design team with the architecture firm HHCP and Ripley's Entertainment in-house designers.
That modesty disclaimer out of the way: the tunnel is awesome! It's a one of a kind feature that offers lots of fun for kids (and adults - if they dare). Check it out yourself, or let me show it to you here.

Two penguins swimming over the all acrylic cylinder
This crawl-through cylinder is unique because there is no flat horizontal glass floor in the round tube. Usually walk-through or crawl-through cylinders have a flat floor. This absence of glass - and any other support structure - creates amazing transparency, as you can see on the photos. Only diving gets you closer to the animals.
Below is a photo looking back to the entry. I picked a couple photos without visitors to show you how transparent the tunnel is.
The acrylic floor feels softer and warmer than glass, which makes it better for crawling on, and because the floor is chemically bonded it doesn't have any joints i.e. there's no silicon edge along the glass seam. It is completely smooth and allows you to slouch down the wall towards the floor.
Kids slouching in tunnel
A few other details make this tunnel unique, but before I get to them, let me show you how this cylinder fits into the visitors' path through the exhibit.
If you follow the main visitor route, indicated by the orange arrow, you first encounter a large viewing panel, curved at one end and crowned by three large monitors at the other. Once you turn the corner to continue through the penguin exhibit, you can branch off into the crawl-through cylinder; marked here by a small red arrow.

I took this short clip from the main window. First you see the above water view into the exhibit then the camera dips down below the water level pointing towards the crawl-through cylinder.
Here the underwater view as a photo:
The bright reflection on the cylinder is not visible from inside it
Most adults won't see the cylinder from here because their eye level is too far above water level, while kids eyes are usually right around the water's surface. The path slopes slightly down to increase the water depth and allows adults a better view into the pool.
When they turn the corner visitors can leave the main visitor path and enter into the crawl-through cylinder thereby entering a secondary path. Mostly children do it; and this is where they can explore, have an adventure on their own, but still interact with the adults on the main path.

The interaction between the child and adult happens when a kid pops up in the vertical cylinder at the end of the crawl-through cylinder and, of course, they get a great close up view of penguins.
Children popping up in the middle of the exhibit next to penguins
Parents taking photos of their kids in the pop-up cylinder (orange arrow)
From a different angle during a keeper talk
From the pop-up cylinder the kids continue through another underwater viewing tunnel.
Children crawling along another penguin viewing tunnel

Kids looking at penguins above them
This second crawl-through tunnel is a candy-cane shaped acrylic panel that offers a 90-degree view to the pool. It is located on the penguin's fastest route between their nesting ground and the pool, therefore sightings of overhead penguin crossings are common. Here you can see what the children above are looking at:

The bird above is ready to hop out and is standing in about 2.5 inches (6cm) of water.
When the wave machine is off, as during the keeper talk, the water is so calm that you can watch the talk from underneath the water.
Children watching the keeper talk from underwater
Penguins standing on acrylic panel

The children's path ends here and merges with the main path.

I will continue this narrative and why this tunnel is unique with more details in a follow-up post.

Meanwhile, and in celebration of African Penguin Awareness Day, I'd like to promote a couple of links that fit the occasion.

At the WAZA website (World Association of Zoos and Aquariums) you can find out what zoos and aquariums are doing to help African Penguins.

In South Africa, the penguin's native habitat, SANCOOB is helping these birds with a multitude of projects in close coordination with zoos and aquariums around the world. SANCOOB stands for Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds.
The life-story of Mrs. Althea Louise Burman Westphal, co-founder of SANCCOB, makes a great read.

Kids burning off energy: Where to play in aquariums (Part 2) by Martin

In my last post I wrote about the necessity for aquariums to provide play areas with every exhibit, or at least within every exhibit gallery, so that kids can let out their extra energy.
I only showed what was simple, low tech and of moderate size.

In this entry I want to present an item that is great for play and being active, but is high tech: interactive wall (or floor) projection technology.
The example I chose is from the Aquamarine Fukushima Aquarium in Japan. The aquarium opened in 2000 and ten years later it added a new exhibition area. This addition is geared towards kids. (I already wrote about its spiny lobster exhibit and cushioned play area in previous entries.)

Next to the cushioned play area are interactive projection walls that allow children (ages 3 to 99) to manipulate a projected image on the wall through their own movement.
Below two girls are jumping in front of the wall to manipulate the projected images.

This is better explained by the video clip below. 13seconds

Or, here is an example from the Orlando Airport in Florida, that shows this technology in action with an aquatic touch 14-second clip

Back to the Aquamarine Fukushima aquarium:

I liked how active the kids were in front of the screens. 

I liked the set up that children can manipulate the projection of a jelly fish and then observe the real thing in the tank adjacent to the screen. You can see their dad, who seconds ago was waving his arms in front of the screen, now taking a closer look at the jelly tank in the background

I also like that these screens are easy to dismantle to make room for a fish tank. Which could happen in the near future, because...
Technology in zoos and aquariums is often faster outdated than one can install it. These interactive walls (also available as floor projections) are becoming increasingly common at airports and malls, and are often used in connection with advertisement.Nintendo's Wii, with its handheld pointing device that detects movement, is not far off from the motion screen technology and has already made it into kids' homes.
So how do you top that or make it more novel? Do you want to or need to? Wouldn't it be better - in the long run - to stick to your core business?

However skeptical I am about putting resources towards technology, I was impressed when I saw the children dancing in front of the two projections, burning off energy, and having fun! - It worked great.

On the video clip above the screen is round, in the foreground and part of the yellow wall.
There is a fish tank directly underneath it - bringing the fish back into the picture. (I was wondering, does this hand-waving and jumping up and down of the visitors provide any enrichment/entertainment for the fish?).

The photo below is giving you an overview of the layout of the space: the round screen on the right with the discus tank underneath, and a jelly tank on the left with two projection screens beyond.

Interactive motion screens at the Aquamarine Fukushima (click on photo to enlarge)
Next to these motion projection screens is a cushioned play area with several fish exhibits, which I presented in the previous entry. I venture to predict that the play area will still be fun five years from now, but the motion screens won't; they will have been replaced with the next cool thing.
But again, for now they are fun and good examples for letting out some energy indoors with the entire family.

In case you want to find out more about these interactive devices I've included a few links below.
1. A company that manufactures interactive motion screens

 2. A blog that discusses this - and similar - technology: "Interactive Multimedia Technology"

Children burning off pent up energy: Where to play in aquariums by Martin

I want to show you some play areas that I came along recently that allow children to let off some steam. The photos and video clips are from aquariums, malls and airports - what they have in common is that they are indoors and that they encourage kids to be active.
Children playing at a lantern fish sculpture at Ripley's Aquarium Myrtle Beach in South Carolina
Imagine you are a kid and you have been buckled up for an hour's drive to see fish but all you can do is look, when what you really want to do is jump, touch, participate...
Or maybe this energy is due to inclement weather which kept you indoors during the week's heat spell or rainy days. Finally your parents had enough and chaperoned you into an aquarium...
Or you have just toured some of the aquarium, watching fish of all sizes and shapes, listening to videos, and touching screens, and you feel an overload of excitement and are ready to let some of it out...
How do you let go of this energy in an aquarium?
The first example is from the Aquamarine Fukushima aquarium in Japan.
Click on the photos to enlarge.
A boy is jumping (he's a blur ) from a cushioned box onto the cushioned floor among some plush animals.

In the photo above the boy is jumping in the other direction. Again, he's a blur and partially hidden by the pink box. You can spot his dad to the far right in a trench coat sitting on one of the cushioned boxes.

And in the final shot the boy is posing for me kneeling on the raised bench. In the foreground is a fish bowl (click on photos to enlarge).

This cushioned play area measures about 20 square meters  (215 sq. feet). There are about five or six small fish tanks interspersed. Tanks differ in shape: rectangle, bowl, cylinder.

Here is a fast pan through the area giving you a quick overview

The pan is so fast that I clipped a couple photos from it below.

Notice the stuffed turtle and stuffed fish (or whale) the kids are bouncing and pouncing on?

And while the kids are active and burning off energy in the "rubber cell" their parents enjoy a tranquil moment to look closely at fish:

If kids are having a great time, the parents love it! They can rest on the cushioned boxes and connect with your treasures. This is the time to bring your message across! Now your husbandry, education or conservation people can "sponsor" this place with their message.

In this play area visitors can observe discus fish (among other species) and find out that discus parents raise their young carefully, and "feed them with a kind of milk secreted from their bodies".
Really? Just like a mammal? Makes you think, doesn't it? Something to talk about. Fitting for an area were visitors bring their carefully-raised young...

For me the bottom line of this area is: First fun, then fish, then the message. 

The next example is a small play area at the Tulsa Airport (Oklahoma, USA).
I've come by this play area several times over the last year and there were always kids playing. Unfortunately, the day I had time to take photos there were no kids around.
Two things I thought were interesting. First, there was not much to this area: just a rubber floor, a crawl-through box, a couple climb-on sculptures and a few games. But kids enjoyed it all the same.
The second interesting thing is that there is no play area at the Oklahoma Aquarium itself, for which this piece is making propaganda. Burning-off-energy areas for kids would be a great addition to this otherwise outstanding aquarium, but I believe they are working on this as I am writing.

This shot is from the other side. I think the entire area is less than 15 square meters (160 sq.ft), and would fit easily next to many indoor exhibits - in aquariums and zoos alike.

The next example is from a mall in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

The area is neither pretty nor involved: cushioned wall, rubberized floor and a slide/climbing sculpture that seems very accident proof - a  synonymous expression for boring - and yet all kids I observed had great fun with it. 
The kids didn't come here to see anything interesting or to learn something new. All they wanted to do was run and jump. I observed the girls in the photo above running down the ramp (the kids didn't use it as a slide) and crashing into the cushioned railing and then letting themselves fall onto the floor - that went on and on. Later I saw two boys doing the same thing. I caught it on the video below:

This game seemed to be as much fun as it was pointless. I saw them doing it over and over.
It also brought back to mind something my sister-in-law said. My two nephews are bundles of energy
and she goes to places where they can let that energy out. She avoids places where they have to sit tight. She doesn't enjoy telling them off, and she is most happy when the kids are having fun.
This play area caters to the needs of the young just like a bench caters to the needs of the elderly or weary. While benches are common in most aquarium galleries, play areas are usually few and far and often just in one area, instead of being interspersed throughout the aquarium.

A good example for combining fish with the children's need to burn off energy is the crawl through tunnel in the Natural Encounters building at the Houston Zoo in Texas.

Here children can crawl through an acrylic tube in a piranha tank. Parents can observe them from the main viewing window - and the kids love that. While I was there most kids did several runs through the tunnel.
Check out the clip below. The girl in the pink dress goes in at the beginning of the video and is back by the end of it. 

Here I follow her from the exit to the entrance...

In the photo below there is a teenager behind a couple of kids.

Nobody spent much time observing the piranhas. At some point there was a group of mothers in front of the window - they neither read the signs nor paid any attention to the fish, but conversed happily with each other, occasionally waving at their kids. Neither did the kids spend much (if any) time looking at the fish. But they all enjoyed what they were doing!
Maybe they had so much fun they'll want to come back or at least they'll tell their friends about it and generate more revenue that way - which might eventually fund your renovation or conservation projects.
Here, too, the bottom line is: First fun, then fish and then the rest will fall into place.

With this blog entry I wanted to show you a variety of possible indoor play activities that could easily be part of or nearby an animal exhibit.
This is about burning off pent up energy. It is not about fish, not about conservation, not about education - but with a clever layout and the right timing you might slither your message in - and more effectively than in any other way because your visitors are having fun.

All play areas presented are simple - I left out anything complex, hugely expensive or technology driven - I'll do that in my next blog.

Most larger aquariums have an outdoor playground and some even an indoor play area - somewhere.
But better yet is to intertwine the need for action and participation with observing the fish: bringing fun and fish together.

And this is what is to come. Any doubts? Looking back in time might give you a good idea where the future is headed. Judging from the black and white photo below and the examples I have shown before, I find it certain that visitor participation and kid activities will play a larger part in public aquariums.

 (Photo copyright Karl Rauschkolb - click on image to enlarge)
This photo from the former Cleveland Aquarium shows that three of the six tanks are above the visitors' eye level. Aquariums have come a long way for kids.

If you offer benches then you cater to the need of the weary visitors.  If you offer play, climb, crawl and jump areas then you offer something for those with extra energy. Most likely children. Most likely the driving force behind the wish to visit your aquarium; and remember: parents do what children love!

Manatee - Mixed species exhibit at The Dallas World Aquarium by Martin

During my visit to The Dallas World Aquarium in Texas I saw manatees mixed with large arapaimas in the Orinoco Rainforest tank. It was impressive to see these large but otherwise very different animals so close together.
 Click on the photo for larger version.

 Here is a video clip

The aquarium guide listed the manatee as "Antillean manatee" a term that was new to me since I had heard it only referred to as the West Indian Manatee Trichechus manatus.

They also had three catfish species in the tank
South American Red Tailed Catfish Phractocephalus hemioliopterus
Reticulated Shovelnose catfish  Pseudoplatystoma reticlatum
The aquarium guide listed the third as "Fork-snouted" catfish. I couldn't find any further information about it and made the assumption they are referring to the  Ripsaw catfish Oxydoras niger
as shown in the photo below.

Another species in the tank is the "Brown stingray" - at least that's what it said in the aquarium guide. But after looking closer at the photo in their guide book and then at the photo below I decided it is an Ocellate river stingray Potamotrygon motoro. Though I must add that this not my field of expertise.

The stingray is partially covered by the visitor's head
While I tried to find an answer to my stingray question I stumbled over an interesting aquarium website:
with an introduction on how to keep freshwater stingrays

I also saw a few black-banded leporinus Leporinus fasciatus 
This is a file from the Wikimedia Commons.

And finally, the Arrau turtle Podocnemis expansa is sharing the pool with the manatees.

 From above the manatee pool looked like this:

In both photos above you can see a manatee to the left of the island.
The island is home to Saki monkeys and Emperor tamarins.

Many birds are "flying freely from the island in the River exhibit to the top of the seven-story structure" - to quote the guide.
I just want to list a few here:

Southern yellow grosbeak

Green oropendola

Crested orpendola

Andean cocks-of-the-rock Rupicola peruvianus

Pompadour cotinga

Capuchin bird

and various toucan species.

I also saw  several species of waterfowl  in the pool. The guide lists:
Ringed teal, Rosy-billed pochard  and White-faced whistling duck
Black-necked swan
Orinoco goose

Here a shot from the underwater window with two ducks bobbing in the water

The photo below shows a huge waterfall. I was once told by a marine mammal curator that his manatees were stressed when introduced to a new exhibit due to a life support return pipe that was placed one meter above the pool surface (3 feet) and emptied with a lot of noise.
At The Dallas World Aquarium the animals not only have the water of a return pipe gushing into the pool, as you can see in one of the above water photos, but also a tall waterfall. Neither of the two animals seems to be particularly stressed and they were calmly swimming circles through the pool. But again, I'm a designer and this is not my field of expertise.

notice the tall aerial roots hanging behind and alongside the waterfall
And lastly, another video from the underwater viewing area

For all photos and videos above copyright 2010 wild-design unless otherwise noted

Bigger is better: Penguin exhibit at the Sea Life Park Tokyo by Martin

Within the last year I have visited sixteen penguin exhibits - mainly because of a penguin project I have been working on. I made the following observation: the larger the water body the more birds I saw in the water. Water motion, like waterfalls, jets, waves etc. also seem to be a major factor.

Sure, sixteen random visits are not a study, and it might have been all coincidental. But during my recent visit to Japan I came across four penguin exhibits, quite by chance and at different times, and these four exhibits mirrored my observation perfectly.
Of these four exhibits, three were rather small and all penguins were just standing on land, except for one where a few birds of the flock enjoyed water jets in a shallow pool.

The fourth exhibit however had a huge pool - probably the largest penguin pool I have seen in my life - and a wave machine. There all birds were in the water. This exhibit is located at the Sea Life Park Aquarium, Tokyo, and I will show it here.

Below is video that I shot at the underwater window. Seeing all these animals moving in a flock was  impressive.

Although the pool was huge the penguins loved swimming near the window and these curious animals seemed to be as interested in the visitor as they were in the birds.

On display were Humboldt penguins  mixed with Rockhoppers, and in an area seperated by a fence they had a flock of Fairy penguins.
I didn't noticed the Rockhoppers when I was visiting but when I looked closer at the photo below I noticed that this is not a Humboldt penguin.


While this exhibit impressed me for its size, I was underwhelmed by what it had to offer the visitors. There was only one underwater viewing window and none for the Fairy penguins. The window had a high ledge, too high for smaller kids unless they were lifted right on it. And the upper window edge was rather low. Look at the guy on the left of the photo below and see how his eye level, water level and the upper window edge are on the same height. The underwater viewing was only accessible by staircases.

What was good was the length of the slightly concave window: ideal to observe the animals on their underwater flight.

The above water viewing was so high above the water table that it made it less interesting to observe the animals. The boy in the photo leaning over the railing is at least 2.5 meters (8') above the birds. There was no visitor viewing near the nest boxes which were all tucked away at the end and to the back of the exhibit.
However, despite these short comings I enjoyed my stay at this exhibit and I liked it a lot for what it had to offer the birds. I was particularly impressed by the shear number of birds doing their synchronized swimming pattern: simply amazing! Here is a video clip that shows it from above:

The Fairy penguins are separated by a fence from the Humboldts and Rockhoppers.
In the background of the photo below you can see the next boxes. (You might need to click on it and look at the enlarged version)

On the video below you can see the wave action at the beach. The wave  is somewhat lost at the underwater viewing window, despite the fact that the top of the window is right at water level and I thought you could easily see the waves zooming by. But maybe the pool is too big, or the waves are too small?

Below I added notes to a satellite photo from Google Maps to give you an overview. From the photo I figured the pool measures about 35 meters (115') in length, and has a width of about 7 meters (23'). The land part of the exhibits is at least another 10 meters (33') passed the pool.

I couldn't tell whether this was a salt or fresh water exhibit.

I was there in April when it was still too cold for mosquitoes. However I heard that mosquitoes can become quite a nuisance even in the Tokyo Metropolitan area. I didn't see any traps or fans or other physical devices to deal with them. I assume that the birds are either treated with medicine or the avian malaria doesn't exist in Japan.

Bumblefoot or Pododermatitis
I once read that all diseases can ultimately traced back to the lack of oxygen in the tissue or organ. The source of this information might be somewhat flaky - a note pinned up in a yoga studio or a caption in some health magazine, I don't remember. But if this statement is true, than nothing would be better to prevent the bumble foot disease - a problem not uncommon with penguins in captivity - than exercise that gets the blood circulating and with it the oxygen. But if the penguins are spending hours on end standing on land because the water is not enticing enough for them to take a swim, the disease might be predetermined.

How does this effect the design of a penguin pool? For me it means: make the water as interesting as possible with jets, waves, obstacles, arches, varying water depth, large size pool for speeding longer stretches and easy turning radius, and having the right temperature, or maybe give them something interesting to look at underwater like a peek in the food prep room or a predator tank, or simply windows where they can observe the visitors.

Another benefit: Active animals are more fun to watch.

For all photos and videos above: @2010

360 degree viewing tunnel at the Shinagawa Aquarium - 2nd posting by Martin

This is the second post about the Spotted seal exhibit. (Click here if you want to read the first one.)

The 360degree viewing tunnel is what got me most excited about this exhibit. But while I am posting about it, I might as well do a complete job and show the entire seal exhibit.

The aquarium guide calls this new, two story building addition
Observatory for Spotted seal behavior.

Below a bird's eye view. I circled the Spotted Seal building. The main aquarium is to the right of the circle.
 from Bing maps

Below two photos that show the Observatory from the outside. You can see, if you click and enlarge the photo, the main aquarium on the right (white tiled building and probably over 20 years old) and the new Observatory addition in fair-faced reinforced concrete (probably less than 2 years old).

Notice the roof covering the visitor area on the 2nd level and the hole in the middle of the roof, allowing the animals to get a dose of rain or sunshine.
I like it that the animals have access to the outside air with it's ever changing smells. Being open to the elements is something every caretaker or designer should strive to provide for all animals (even fish - if possible. And, agreed, there are climate and disease restrictions for some species, but I would guess for 99% of animals in captivity these restrictions don't apply - or not at all times).

Below a video clip of the above water area - 2nd level deck:

Photos of upper level:

 click photos to enlarge

Allowing the visitors above water and below water within such a small area creates the challenge for any designer. At the Shinawaga Aquarium they solved it with a staircase and an elevator. Neither are ideal in a zoo setting, but sometimes unavoidable.

Photo: visitor staircase to underwater viewing area.

And below a video clip where I take the elevator to the underwater viewing hall.

By making the back wall of the elevator out of glass, the designers turned the ride into part of the exhibit experience; But I'm wondering how much it had cost (glass and extra acrylic, not to mention the maintenance of window cleaning) and I wonder whether this is paying off in terms of overall visitor experience. If you watch the movie clip you'll notice how fast that thing gets me down, which is nice, but doesn't do much for animal observation.

Riding the elevator down I was able to spot a window in the outside facade which allows the seal to look out. Seals are curious critters and there is not much they can see on the upper deck - I loved it for the seal: an exhibit with a view!

Talking about view: There is a hole in the concrete slab allowing the seal to poke their head through.
From below it looks like this:
 From above it looks like this:
Why, I was asking myself, would the seals want to use this hole if they have a much larger open water surface a few feet away? Oddly enough they did. In the roughly fifteen minutes that I spent there, it happened about three times that a seal, suspended upright in the water, kept looking up through the hole. But never long enough for me to take a photo, although I sprinted the staircase two times when I spotted an animal in the hole from below, just to have it dive away when I got there.

The look down glass floor in the tunnel
Glass was used for the floor in the otherwise all acrylic 360 degree viewing tunnel. The glass was "pocked marked" to prevent visitors from slipping. The anti slip worked perfectly: no slip and only minimal impact on the view through the glass.
I was curious what they did to the glass to roughen it up in places.
Here a video of me scratching the glass:

Below a photo of the glass floor: Very transparent despite anti-slip treatment

and a close up of the anti-slip - click image to enlarge

Below a shot through the acrylic hemisphere, and therefore distorted, but notice how light and transparent the floor appears, it almost vanishes.

And two final photos showing the floor

Below: I did a quick, rough sketch of the layout of the underwater exhibit area.

I conclude the posting for the Spotted Seal exhibit with two videos:

for all videos, sketches and photos above ©2010 wild–
unless noted otherwise.