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At OKC Zoo, sea lions to get new home

At OKC Zoo, sea lions to get new home

A sea lion entertains visitors to the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden. The final design is being completed for a new larger sea lion habitat, with construction expected to begin in spring 2023. (Courtesy photo/Oklahoma City Zoo)

OKLAHOMA CITY – A new expansive sea lion habitat is the next big project slated at the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Garden.

Zoo Executive Director and CEO Dwight Lawson said the final design for the 270,000-gallon exhibit should be completed this fall. A cost estimate will be available at that time, he said.

Local company Beck Design and zoo design experts Studio Hanson | Roberts of Bainbridge Island, Washington, are collaborating on the design. The project will be bid early next year, and construction should begin in the spring after the opening of the $27 million Expedition Africa exhibit, Lawson said.

Expedition Africa, the largest habitat expansion in the zoo’s 120-year history, is under construction on 13 acres in the heart of the zoo. Starting the sea lion project before the Africa project is completed would put too much of the zoo under construction at once, Lawson said.

The current sea lion habitat is the former Aquaticus exhibit space, which opened in 1986 with popular Atlantic bottle-nosed dolphin shows. The zoo closed the exhibit in 2001 after a deadly bacteria killed four dolphins.

“It wasn’t originally designed for sea lions. It does not have a great viewing experience,” Lawson said. “It will be a night-and-day difference.”

Visitors will be able to view the sea lions from the top level and at both partial and full underwater levels. Features in the pool will include a wave machine to simulate the ocean waves sea lions experience in the wild.

“The goal is to have them on view all the time,” Lawson said. The sea lion shows – which currently cost $5 – will be free with zoo admission.

The Oklahoma City Zoo is home to seven California sea lions and two harbor seals. The staff must find facilities that can house them during the construction, Lawson said. Sending even one 800-pound male sea lion on vacation for 18 months or more takes a lot of planning and coordination, he said.

Since 1990, the zoo has received one-eighth of a cent from the city’s sales tax collections. Lawson said those dollars fund the vast majority of big projects.

The sea lion habitat renovation is one of the last projects in the zoo’s current 10-year improvement plan. “They are all done or in the pipeline,” Lawson said, adding work to develop a new 10-year plan will begin soon.

The zoo welcomes more than 1 million guests annually. Most live within a two-hour drive, but records show many visitors come from Dallas-Fort Worth and Amarillo, Texas, and Wichita, Kansas. During 2022 spring break, 25% of visitors came from out of state.

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