Exclusive: Behind-the-scenes preview of the new St. Louis Aquarium

DOWNTOWN – By now, every St. Louisan can recount the improbable tale of the Blues’ ride to glory, beating all odds to win the Stanley Cup last month. And many can tell you about the equally unlikely, 1-in-2-million blue lobster caught off New England during the playoffs and donated to St. Louis by a good-hearted Boston-area restaurateur in honor of the Blues’ championship.  (And, yes, it’s true: Lobsters bleed blue just like local fans, due to their copper-based blood containing hemocyanin.)

But not many folks can tell you about a third long-shot phenom about to debut just two blocks from the Blues’ home ice, unless you happen to be that rare blue lobster saved from a scalding exit and awaiting a new home at Union Station.

“St. Louis is one of the biggest metro cities in the country without an aquarium,” said Cameron Schoeffel, director of sales and entertainment at the still-under-construction St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station. With 250,000 gallons of saltwater, scores of sharks (they were in the playoffs, right?) and rays (no, that’s a baseball team), the St. Louis Aquarium is due to open by Christmas. There will be plenty of freshwater, too, with a two-story river otter habitat, a meeting-of-the-rivers gallery and petting tanks.

“We like to say you’re going to come to the St. Louis Aquarium and get your hands wet,” Schoeffel added.

By this fall, the $167 million development will include an adjacent train yard area featuring a 200-foot-tall observation wheel (taller than the Statue of Liberty), three new restaurants, a mirrored maze, carousel, 18-hole mini-golf, a splash area and ziplines that thread through the pillars supporting the train shed roof. An additional element within the aquarium will be a glass tunnel allowing visitors to walk beneath and through the saltwater tank teeming with sharks and rays.

That leaves no room for leaks, but it’s all designed and constructed by two companies, PGAV and McCarthy, with experience building aquariums around the world. Two miles of pipes below and above ground feed the intricate life-support systems that recreate ocean and river habitats and climates. Testing of the saltwater tank began last week, with nary a leak found.

Funded by Union Station’s owner, Lodging Hospitality Management — which operates 19 hotel properties in the metro area — and managed by the zoOceanarium Group, the St. Louis Aquarium has yet to announce the cost of admission, but it is likely to be significant. Thanks to our unique Zoo-Museum District, St. Louisans are used to free admission to attractions such as the zoo, art museum, history museum and, one day a week, botanical garden. Because the aquarium will be privately owned and operated, it won’t be free.

“We are delighted that the St. Louis region will have an aquarium that is seeking membership and accreditation from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums,” said Billy Brennan, director of public relations and government affairs at the Saint Louis Zoo. “We also understand that Lodging Hospitality Management plans to do meaningful conservation at this facility. [Our] mission is to conserve animals and their habitats and to connect people with animals. The more ways that can happen for the citizens of our region, the happier we are.”

For many residents, cost may be an issue, but for hotel patrons, admission is wrapped into their stay. A few guest rooms actually overlook the complex, and the far end of the aquarium will be exclusively allocated for hotel patrons and private functions.

“If you want to get married in front of a river otter tank, this is the perfect place to do it,” Schoeffel said.

Union Station is now one of the busiest hotels in all of St. Louis, but with online shopping, big box stores and megamalls, the boutique mall concept just couldn’t compete. All those shops that used to line the inside of Union Station have been gone for years now, replaced by a sparkling marble, train-station-wide convention and conference space. That will stay, separate from the aquarium, but all under the umbrella of LHM. Schoeffel said that one local favorite from years past – The Fudgery – would be returning.

“In terms of where people shop and like to spend time, it’s not as much downtown as we would like it to be,” Schoeffel said, “and we’re hoping to change all that with this aquarium.”

Baby Blue

Meanwhile, a little blue lobster sits in a tank sequestered somewhere in the offices of LHM on an upper floor of Union Station under lock and key. It will be the aquarium’s first official resident. 

Nathan Nickerson III, owner of Arnold’s Lobster and Clam Bar in Eastham, Mass., on Cape Cod, discovered the 11-inch-long, 7-year-old male last month in a batch order of lobsters from the Ipswich Shellfish Group. He knew it was a rare, 1-in-2-million genetic variation resulting from overproduction of a certain protein that binds with pigment, and he wanted to give it a safe home in an aquarium somewhere.

When the Blues won against his own cherished Bruins and he heard about the new St. Louis Aquarium, he said, he wanted to prove that not all Boston fans are over the top. 

“I’d like to give the blue lobster to the St. Louis aquarium,” Nickerson said last month, “out of respect to the St. Louis Blues … to show that Bruins fans have class.”

Nickerson named it Baby Blue, but it’s likely to get a new name soon. It (Stanley?) arrived last week in an ice cooler in its own seat aboard a commercial jet. Grateful St. Louis Aquarium owners sent Nickerson’s restaurant 150 cups of Ted Drewes blueberry frozen custard in return. 

But he who laughs last, laughs best: To keep Baby Blue well hydrated and alive, he was wrapped in a soaked Boston Bruins towel. Never mind, it bleeds blue, just like the rest of us, and the real Stanley is just down the street.

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