The last few years undoubtedly have been tough for Moby Solangi.
A natural-born promoter, Solangi, who has a doctorate in marine biology from University of Southern Mississippi, had to keep relatively quiet about his Institute for Marine Mammal Studies off Mississippi 605 in Gulfport. Without so much as a sign on the major north-south artery, the institute attracted about 40,000 people, mostly schoolchildren, annually. He had to turn down a plan to market the facility, which specializes in research, rescue, rehabilitation and education, because he feared marketing would bring in far more people than the institute, with limited seating around its saltwater tanks, could handle.
“We kept it quiet,” he said. “We didn’t advertise.”
Then after trying to get an aquarium off the ground in one Coast city after another, he finally settled on building Ocean Expo, a $15 million center he calls the “front of the house” at IMMS. There, visitors will be able to swim with stingrays and sharks, feed exotic birds and watch sea lions and dolphins perform. In a few months, he’ll be ready to actively try to attract the public.
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But don’t call his latest venture an attraction, he said. An attraction is something like the Marine Life Oceanarium he ran for years in the Gulfport Harbor until it was wiped out by 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. And he said it will complement, not compete with, the Mississippi Aquarium planned for downtown Gulfport. Solangi is not involved in that aquarium.
Not the Oceanarium
Ocean Expo will be different from the Oceanarium, he said, although it will have some of the elements — smooches from sea lions, for example — that drew about 200,000 people a year to what was a decidedly blue-collar attraction.
“This will be everything I have learned from all my mistakes,” Solangi said. “The goals and objectives, there are four of them: education, conservation, research and public display. We try to make learning fun and have people appreciate the environment that they are using — it has both recreational and economic value. So we want them to enjoy it, protect it and learn from it. The various aspects are all integrated.
“It used to be, 30 or 40 years ago, you were in public display or in research or you were in conservation. What I’ve done is something very unique. I’ve combined all four things in one organizations.”
He said IMMS proved to be vital in the aftermath of the BP oil spill, handling almost 36 percent of all the dolphins affected and 50 percent of the endangered sea turtles. He said IMMS research has led to a better understanding of the sea turtles and has allowed fishing to return to Coast piers that had been closed because fishermen were inadvertently snagging too many endangered turtles. Each pier had a maximum number of turtle catches assigned to it and when that number was reached the pier was closed.
“Most fishermen would cut the line and let the turtle go (rather than have it count against the pier as a caught turtle),” Solangi said. “and that was actually killing them. They would be running around with the hook and line and it would get entangled and eventually cause an infection.”
Solangi said IMMS persuaded federal officials and fishermen to allow IMMS to take the turtles, nurse them back to health and return them to the Gulf of Mexico. Those activities fulfill the education, conservation and research mission, he said. Those have been handled in what he calls the back of the house, where there are nurseries, a veterinary hospital, a necropsy lab and dolphin and sea lion tanks.
$15 million facility
The Ocean Expo, which probably will open in July, will fulfill his public display goal. It will be the first thing visitors see when they round the final bend in Dolphin Lane before IMMS.
Coastal Industrial Contractors of Biloxi is building the $15 million facility, which Solangi said is being paid for mostly with federal grants. One of those, a grant of about $7 million from the Coastal Impact Assistance Program that sends money from oil companies to states affected by offshore drilling, at one time got a scathing review from the Inspector General’s Office at the Department of Interior. But OIG’s problem wasn’t with Solangi, said a spokeswoman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, administrator of the grant, and it is satisfied with the way the money is now being spent.
Now, Solangi just wants a stretch of dry weather so the project can be completed.
“The final part of our project is under construction and should be finished in a couple of months,” he said. “We can do the research. We can do the conservation. We can do the education. But how do you take all that and get the public involved?”
Visitors to the Coast can’t always get close to the animals that live in the Mississippi Sound.
“Sometimes the water isn’t as clear, sometimes the beaches are closed,” he said. “The largest dolphin population in the United States is right here in Louisiana-Mississippi waters but not everyone can get a boat to go see them.”
The case for public display
So Solangi said he is bringing the animals to the people to allow them to experience them with all their senses — touch, taste, smell, hearing and sight. The purpose, he said, is for them to develop an empathy for them.
“When you start loving something, you want to protect it,” he said.
Solangi said he knows interest is waning for exhibits that are purely entertainment-type shows. That, he said, is why he is trying this fusion of education, conservation, research and display. And, he said, he’s well aware some critics don’t want animals in captivity. In fact, Solangi had been a main target in the past because for years he captured marine mammals for display. Now, he said, he keeps only the animals that could not be returned to the wild.
The sea lions, for example, lost their mothers when they were infants in California.
“They had only two options — euthanize them or put them back where the sharks would eat them,” he said. “So if you were a sea lion pup, I’m not sure either one of those options is a good one.”
He offered a third option: life at IMMS as “an ambassador for their species.”
“We talk about what we need to protect them, why they are important,” he said. “The fun things they do is enrichment for them. We don’t make them do anything unnatural.”