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Stephan Roggenbuck, a custom furniture maker, sets up new panels made of recycled milk cartons at the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium, which will be presenting a new jellyfish exhibit when they open on Wednesday. The aquarium just completed a renovation that cost $150,000, money provided by a grant from the California Coastal Conservancy (photo by Brandon Wise)

SANTA MONICA PIER Amid the zinging of power saws and pounding hammers was an undeniable enthusiasm building within the walls of Heal the Bay’s Santa Monica Pier Aquarium on Monday, an excitement over the anticipated reopening that no construction noise could drown out.

Work crews and volunteers are putting the finishing touches on a month-long renovation of the aquarium, which opens to the public on Wednesday afternoon after taking nearly the entire month of September off for a face lift.

The 4,500 square-foot aquarium, which is operated by nonprofit environmental organization Heal the Bay, temporarily shuts down a few weeks after Labor Day every year for minor maintenance and modifications to its educational curriculum. This year was a different story as more than $150,000 was put in for a larger capital project that includes the installation of a new exhibit.

“This year is the most ambitious work we’ve taken in a one-month period,” Randi Parent, the aquarium’s community outreach coordinator, said.

Funded through a piece of a $650,000 grant received from the California Coastal Conservancy two years ago, the makeover includes the renovation of the aquarium’s southwestern corner from a simple informational exhibit on storm drain and trash to a new 180-gallon sea jelly kreisel, which is a round tank designed to protect the creature’s fragility.

The new jellyfish section is perhaps the biggest undertaking in this year’s project as the corner also features a mural that covers more than two walls. Painted by Cleo Vilett, an artist from the San Francisco Bay Area, the mural — which depicts an oceanic scene — ties itself in with the jellyfish kreisel and an adjacent tank that will contain floating plastic bags, illustrating the impact humans have on sea life. Plastic bags, which Heal the Bay is trying to get banned from local retailers, is often consumed by predators, mistaking them as jellyfish.

Other elements of the project include an expansion of the aquarist area where animals receive care, new paneling made out of recycled milk jugs on all the tanks, and an overhaul of the life support system, which consists of the chiller, filtration, water pumps and protein skimmers.

The aquarium closed to the public on Sept. 2, temporarily reopening during the Coastal Cleanup weekend earlier this month, and will open again to the public on Wednesday at 2 p.m.

One of the challenges the staff faces every year is keeping the aquarium fresh for repeat visitors.

“We want to continually change the exhibits and give them something to come back to because obviously if it’s the same stuff all the time, people will not come back and visit,” Vicki Wawerchak, the director of the aquarium, said. “We’re making a concerted effort so when they come, we will have a new exhibit and education component.”

Parent said that Heal the Bay has been gradually expanding the construction work scope every summer in order to best utilize the small space, which is located underneath the pier. The nonprofit spent about $70,000 last September for regular maintenance work. Part of the grant from the California Coastal Conservancy was spent on redoing the aquarium’s roof.

“The goal is to have our visitors inspired by (the exhibits) so they can do their part to help clean up the environment,” she said.

The aquarium was founded in 1996 as the UCLA Discovery Center and was handed to Heal the Bay in February 2003. After taking over, Heal the Bay shifted the focus of the aquarium to exhibiting habitats in the Santa Monica Bay.

In the past five years, the aquarium has hosted more than 290,000 visitors during regular public hours and 80,000 students for field trip programs. The space features three large touch tanks and several larger tanks that hold a kelp forest, different species of fish, sharks and eel.

A small staff of about 11 people and more than 100 volunteers keep the educational center running nearly year-round.

One of the longest-serving staff member is Jose Bacallao, a senior aquarist, who started when UCLA was still running the aquarium.

Bacallao was among the workers who were busy getting the aquarium ready for business on Monday, running around to make sure the last pieces were in place.

“We’re increasing the diversity of organisms here so it more profoundly reflects the life out in the bay,” he said.

melodyh@smdp.com

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