As word got out that the Houston Zoo was putting together an exhibit on the Galapagos Islands, it raised eyebrows and concerns on and near the volcanic archipelago off the coast of Ecuador.
Zoo CEO Lee Ehmke said staffers in Houston got worried calls from people who thought the zoo might be taking animals from the famed collection of islands in the Pacific Ocean, which teems with a diversity of species, many of which cannot be found anywhere else in the world. Ehmke said those callers were glad to find out the exhibit would only include animals that were similar or related to those from the Galapagos Islands, and that the Houston Zoo supports conservation efforts there.
On Thursday, when the Houston Zoo unveiled what it bills as the world's first conservation-based exhibit on the Galapagos Islands, on hand to celebrate were the executive director of the Charles Darwin Foundation – named after the man whose visit to the islands inspired his theory of evolution – and Houston's General Consul of Ecuador, of which the islands are a province.
"As far as I'm aware, no major zoo exhibit has ever been dedicated around the concept of the Galapagos Islands, and that's largely because most of the animals there are not found in zoos," Ehmke said. "The government there is quite protective of the animals, which is great."
California sea lions, Humboldt penguins, sharks, stingrays, schooling fish, blue iguanas and giant Galapagos tortoises – the latter of which are descendants of animals from the islands, according to Ehmke – are among the featured animals in the new 2.5-acre exhibit, which opened to the public on Friday and greets visitors as they enter the Houston Zoo, 6200 Hermann Park Dr. Ehmke called the $70 million exhibit the "capstone" of the zoo's centennial capital campaign, which raised more than $150 million in all.
The exhibit is largely indoors and partly outdoors, with the outdoor portion featuring a sea lion swimming hole with a volcanic shoreline framed by cliffs. Ehmke said a particularly stunning feature of the exhibit is a 40-foot long, clear, acrylic, under-water tunnel that allows visitors to watch sea lions swimming around and above them.
"It's magical," Ehmke said.
Another part of the exhibit illustrates the dangers of plastics, particularly single-use plastics, to oceans and the species that live in them. Ehmke said the idea behind it is that while the Galapagos Islands might seem far away from the Texas Gulf Coast, what we do in the Houston area has an impact on other parts of the world.
Along those lines, money raised through admission and membership fees at the Houston Zoo are used to support marine conservation programs in the Galapagos Islands and elsewhere, according to the zoo. Ehmke said the zoo's plan is to benefit the islands, while calling attention to their beauty and fragility, for years to come.
"This is built to last," he said of the exhibit. "Galapagos tortoises live to be 150 years old. Ours are about 30 right now. We expect them to have a long life here at the zoo."