It’s taken more than a decade and a couple of tries for Moby Solangi to rebuild what was lost when Hurricane Katrina annihilated the former Marine Life aquarium on the waterfront in Gulfport, and this week he welcomes the public for a soft opening and the first look around his new Ocean Adventures.
Adults and children wandered through the $15 million, 30,000-square-foot facility Monday, learning and having fun as they played among 500 colorful parakeets before discovering the mysteries of the rain forest and watching a trio of dolphins jump in unison at the Dolphin & Sea Lion Arena.
“These guys are very playful,” said trainer Katherine Burton as she got a dolphin to whistle, give her a high fin and then rewards them when all three of the teenage dolphins jump together in the pool.
“This is a much bigger educational facility than Marine Life ever was,” said executive director Moby Solangi, who was a partner in Marine Life. “It is very different. I would say Marine Life plus.”
As he leads a tour of what he calls an experience rather than an attraction, Solangi opens a door to the Ray Pool and promises, “This is the ultimate. You can swim with rays and sharks.”
Is it safe?
“Absolutely,” he says, and he has photos of his young granddaughter in the pool to prove it. The stingers were removed from the rays, Solangi said. The bamboo sharks, scheduled to arrive at Ocean Adventures next week, are very docile, he said.
Adults and kids lean over the wall to feel the smooth stingrays as they pass. Long sections of wall are fitted with glass to give a view of the rays and redfish under the water.
These experiences are part of the regular admission that includes the new attractions. Those who want to get more intimate with the rays and sharks can pay $45 to wade in the pool and feed them, or $65 to snorkel and swim with them.
Those who go into the pool must take an instructional class and shower to wash off any perfumes and dyes. Participants also must bring their own bathing suit and towel. Non-slip shoes and a snorkel will be provided, along with a souvenir photo.
The same goes for those who want to get up close and personal with a sea lion or dolphin. Additional costs range from $25 to kiss a sea lion up to $120 to swim with a dolphin, and all come with a photo.
General admission is $14 for adults, $13 for seniors and active military, and $12 for ages 3-12 and also includes:
▪ Admission to the Aviary, where birds fly overhead and all around.
▪ Macaw and parrot shows four times a day in the outdoor theater.
▪ Dolphin/Sea Lion Show plus the underwater viewing area. “I call it a presentation rather than a show,” said Solangi, since the three times daily show also include videos where spectators learn about the animals.
▪ Stingray feedings three times a day.
▪ Guided tours that take visitors to the touch pools, where adults and children can pet a crab, a snake or an alligator.
“Everything is interactive. You touch. You feel. That’s what’s different,” Solangi said.
All around Ocean Adventures are extra experiences, such as a trickling rock waterfall, two gift shops and sea life murals by Coast artist Marty Wilson. Next to a new pirate ship playground is a picnic area, where groups and families can bring their own lunch and snacks or order from the Turtle Cafe.
Behind the scenes are are pool where the dolphins can go for quiet, a roost for the birds away from the crowds and the largest privately-operated solar generating plant in the state, Solangi said. In partnership with Mississippi Power, “We are producing one-third of our energy,” he said.
School groups are already flooding in, Solangi said, and there are plans for summer camps, birthday parties and sleep overs where kids can listen to stories — about sharks.
The official grand opening is expected in April, and by that time Solangi said the train will arrive to that will take spectators on the short stretch between the new portion of Ocean Adventures to the original section of Institute for Marine Mammal Studies. Ocean Adventures is “a window on IMMS,” which he said rescues and then rehabilitates dolphins, turtles and other sea life on site. He now has 60 employees, Solangi said, 40 to 50 applications for every opening, internships and job shadowing.
This new aquarium is not affiliated with $93 million Mississippi Aquarium the City of Gulfport is building downtown.
Solangi said he has more plans for his new aquarium, which is close to Interstate 10 off Cowan Road.
“I’m not finished yet,” Solangi said. “This is just the beginning of the adventure.”
If you go
What: Ocean Adventures Marine Park
Where: Dolphin Lane, off Cowan Road, Gulfport
When: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Tours leave every 20 minutes beginning at 9:10 a.m. Last tour leaves at 2 p.m.
Cost: $14 adults, $13 for seniors 55 and up and active duty military, $12 children ages 3-12. Additional fees for encounters and swimming with dolphins, sea lions, stingrays and sharks.