For 20 years, Long Beach's Aquarium of the Pacific boasted being open every day of the year except Christmas Day.

Until this year. 

Along with pretty much the rest of the world, the aquarium was forced to close its doors in early spring. A government edict banning gatherings in an effort to slow or stop spread of the coronavirus shut the aquarium down.

Or rather, it closed the aquarium to public visitors. The more than 12,000 animals that call the Aquarium of the Pacific home continued to swim, walk or fly — and eat. The food bill for the tenants did not go down.

Aquarium staff members were busy too. Under the guidance and vision of Dr. Jerry Schubel, aquarium president and CEO, an ambitious, multi-faceted study of coral reefs was prepared for the public's return. Dr. Sandy Trautwein, Aquarium of the Pacific vice president of animal husbandry, played a central role in the vision for "Coral Reefs: Nature's Underwater Cities."

That return began Sunday, June 14. To start, visitors (even aquarium members) had to have a timed reservation — the aquarium could allow only 25% of it capacity at any one time. 

Inside, much of the attention is given over to coral reefs — their importance to the ecology, their inhabitants, the threats they face and the ways environmental scientists are trying to save them.

The most visible of the changes is a revamp of the Tropical Pacific Gallery — the first makeover of one of the aquarium's primary galleries since it opened in 1998. The gallery now progresses through the coral reef story — what coral is and does, what threats the reefs face (think global warming) and what might be done to save them.

"While coral reefs cover less than 1% of the ocean floor, more than 25% of all marine fish species depend upon them," an introduction to the exhibit says. "Coral reefs are the world’s most diverse marine ecosystems, filled with colorful fish and invertebrates that are found nowhere else on Earth. Tens of millions of people rely on them for their livelihoods, and billions of people could potentially depend upon them for the life-saving, medicinal secrets they may contain. But these important ecosystems are at risk. Coral Reefs will examine this topic and what we can do to help."

In addition to the coral itself, other new animals (coral are alive and classified as animals) can be found in the gallery. There's a green sea turtle, flashlight fish (they glow) and Sula, the red-footed booby, a seabird that already has become one of the aquarium's spokes-animals. Sula is one of only two red-footed boobies known to be living in a zoo or aquarium in the world.

The emphasis on coral reefs doesn't stop at the Tropical Pacific Gallery. The aquarium staff has created a new 4-D film for the immersive Honda Pacific Visions Theater. Visitors are taken on an 11-minute dive to explore coral reefs and learn their secrets. (Clown fish play a central role.) Two more movies focusing on coral are being shown at the Ocean Theater off the Great Hall.

While the emphasis is on coral reefs, the rest of the Aquarium of the Pacific's many attractions are ready to welcome visitors. Shark touch tanks, penguin encounters, feeding lorikeets, watching big sea lions to miniscule jellies — the list goes on. There's also the Ocean Science Center with its Science on a Sphere, the Molina Animal Care Center and many online education offerings. And there's a large gift shop to pick up that souvenir.

The aquarium offers several levels of membership with unlimited free admission for 12 months, a VIP entrance, and other special benefits. Convenient parking is available for $8 with aquarium validation. General admission is $34.95 adult (12+), $29.95 senior (65+), $24,95 child, and free to children aged 3 and younger.

Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday through Sunday. Until stated otherwise, everyone must have a reservation to get inside.

To make a reservation, buy a ticket and for more information, go to aquariumofpacific.org.

Harry has been executive editor of Gazette Newspapers for more than 26 years. He has been in the newspaper business for more than 35 years, with experience on both weekly and metropolitan daily papers in Colorado and California.

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