Sea life – with all its otherworldly shapes, eerie textures, peculiar movements and flamboyant colors – makes children of us all. As the Pacific Seas Aquarium at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium opens its doors to the public today for the first time, it becomes a place for children and adults to gawk unabashedly at hammerhead sharks, eagle rays and sea turtles.

The aquarium seeks to replicate environments along the Pacific Coast, from the arctic down to the tropical Baja California climate, always with an underlying message of conservation and preservation.

Pacific Seas Aquarium at Point Defiance Zoo & AquariumEven from the outside, the 35,000-square-foot aquarium does not hide that art is at the center of the facility. Glass art – the hallmark of Tacoma – dangles from the ceiling as 80-lbs jellyfish. Moving art is projected onto the floor, giving visitors the feeling of walking across water. A mural in the Tidal Touch Zone shows a painted version of the creatures’ natural habitat. Art is even printed onto the side of the building itself, as a silhouetted school of fish swim above an artificial tidal wave pool. Even the tanks for some of the sea creatures becomes art. The aquarium encourages visitors to touch a massive glass sphere (called the “Jelly Globe”) with water cascading down it – one of only two in the world – housing moon jellyfish that seem to glow from within. The orange Pacific Sea Nettles are offset with a stunning indigo background, making them into living art as well.  

The various zones, each representing a different part of the Pacific coast, showcases its own works of living art.

Northwest Waters is 100,000 gallons of anenomies that span the color spectrum, dogfish, rockfish and ratfish. There’s a lingcod that has a face only a mother could love, but that everyone can stare at in awe. An environment modeled after what lies below the Tacoma Narrows Bridge showcases a decaying steel girder from Galloping Gertie.

In the Coastal Kelp Forest, California Sheephead fish swim between waving towers of seaweed, showing off fluorescent pink and dark violet coloring. All California Sheephead start life as females, but in the absence of a male through death or departure, one of the “harem” will change sex and become the male.

Pacific Seas Aquarium at Point Defiance Zoo & AquariumThe Tidal Touch Zone is the place where children experience the one-on-one interaction with sea life that changes them from spectator to participant. The textures of the ocean life bring a third dimension to the aquarium experience: the feel of a purple urchin’s spikes, the soft squishiness of a painted anemone, the rough texture of an ochre sea star, the solid armor of an orange crab.

Pacific Seas Aquarium at Point Defiance Zoo & AquariumBaja Bay is the aquarium’s undisputed centerpiece. Visitors stare through a massive window that curves up over their heads, giving them the occasionally unsettling feeling of being immersed in the exhibition. Or at least beneath it, as green sea turtles, eagle rays and hammerhead sharks swim overhead in the 280,000-gallon warm-water exhibit. The aquarium acquired juveniles of each species for the new aquarium, so returning visitors can watch them grow into their space.

Art and conservation are around every turn in the Pacific Seas Aquarium, and at least for the first several months, it’s going to be the highlight of any visit to Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium.