Sea Lion Sound at Saint Louis Zoo Opens to Rave Reviews

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Walk-Through Tunnel Offers Unprecedented Views of Sea

“Judging from the early crowds and their reactions, I believe we will achieve our primary goal for this exhibit,” states John Kemper, Vice President, PGAV Destinations.

PGAV Destinations, a global leader in the planning and design of entertainment and cultural destinations, is pleased to announce the opening of its project Sea Lion Sound at the Saint Louis Zoo.

With a transparent 35-foot-long tunnel, the first of its kind in North America, guests are totally amazed by the experience of being eye-to-eye and nose-to-nose with the majestic sea lions swimming all around them. This is the kind of immersive experience that instills a sense of awe.

Inspired by the Pacific Northwest Coast and by exhibits they have previously created for sharks, whales and other sea creatures, the PGAV Destinations design team created a 1.5-acre, $18 million new state-of-the-art habitat and arena for numerous California sea lions and harbor seals.

“Judging from the early crowds and their reactions, I believe we will achieve our primary goal for this exhibit,” states John Kemper, Vice President, PGAV Destinations. “We aimed to design an experience that would encourage a new level of appreciation for these graceful creatures, their existence, and their environment.”

The design challenge was to replace a Sea Lion Basin built in 1917 and to present Seals and Sea Lions in a natural setting with sufficient water volume for a thriving existence. The new attraction consists of a large exhibit pool and an 811-seat presentation amphitheater with a show pool, all designed to show off the sea lions’ natural abilities.

A large flat acrylic panel provides above and below water views and the walk-thru acrylic tunnel provides an immersive experience. Theming and signage were created to enhance the exhibit and the guests’ interaction with the animals. Adjacent restaurant seating is repositioned to take advantage of views to the exhibit. Back-of-house holding pools, staff support, and indoor training areas are provided. Training is an important part of the animals’ daily lives and their opportunity to interact with keepers and other animals in an organized and meaningful way.

“We selected PGAV Destinations because of their innovative ideas for understanding and displaying animals, and their extensive history of designing for marine mammals in zoos and marine parks around the world,” states Dr. Jeffrey P. Bonner, Dana Brown President and CEO, Saint Louis Zoo.

“This exhibit enables guests to see the animals walk on dry surfaces as well, furthering the guests’ understanding of the two lives of pinnipeds (seals & sea lions); above and below water. Impromptu, amplified and narrated presentations by curators educate guests about the lives and behaviors of individual animals. Conversely, guests provide entertainment and enrichment for the animals,” explains Jim Moorkamp, Principal, PGAV Destinations.

Getting everything ‘right’ on the first try required careful coordination between the designers and the client. PGAV worked closely with David McGuire, AIA, Leed Green Associate, Vice President of Architecture and Planning at the Zoo, who served as the owner’s representative, collaborated on the design, and provided art direction to many of the project components. Through communication and frequent site visits, such as during the implementation of unique components like artificial rockwork, PGAV Destinations was able to address project challenges and create a world-class exhibit.

A significant positive result of the project design is that the Saint Louis Zoo is making a major sustainable improvement to the earth’s water system by avoiding the dumping of 215,000 gallons of water weekly. By filtering and recalculating the new exhibit’s water, the sea lions are living in salt water that is temperature controlled. Curators are now able to regulate the temperature of the water year-round, giving the animals what they like and what is best for them to thrive at the Saint Louis Zoo.

About the Saint Louis Zoo Named America’s #1 Zoo by Zagat Survey and Parenting Magazine, the Saint Louis Zoo is widely recognized for its innovative approaches to animal management, wildlife conservation, research and education. One of the few free zoos in the nation, it attracts about 3,000,000 visitors a year. For more information on Sea Lion Sound and the Saint Louis Zoo, visit,,, and

About PGAV Destinations PGAV Destinations is a global leader in the planning and design of unique destinations. The firm uniquely combines award-winning storytelling and creativity with business strategy to create some of the world’s most important cultural, heritage, and natural destinations. PGAV develops growth-oriented master plans and translates these plans into innovative new destination products. Now in its fifth decade, the firm has authored hundreds of highly successful projects in places such as SeaWorld, the Grand Canyon, Biltmore Estate, The Gettysburg Battlefield, the Georgia Aquarium, Kennedy Space Center, and Busch Gardens.

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Judy Goodman
Lents and Associates
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