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Released March 5, 2003

SOUTHERN MISS' SCOTT AQUARIUM A ‘WINDOW TO THE SEA'

By Christopher Mapp

BILOXI – If the last 20 years have been an educational and commercial success for The University of Southern Mississippi's J.L. Scott Aquarium, then hold onto your waders and secure your snorkels because the next 10 years promises a tidal wave of progress.

Over the next decade, the marine education center and tourist attraction in Biloxi will undergo radical improvements. On the drawing board are plans to expand the 42,000-gallon Gulf of Mexico tank to 400,000 gallons, roughly the size of the Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans. An IMAX-style 3-D theater also is envisioned, as well as a 500-seat amphitheater facing Deer Island that could be used for "sea-symphonies."

"We are the window to the sea," said Dr. Sharon Walker, Southern Miss professor and administrator of the university's 33,000-square-foot facility that represents one of the six research centers in Southern Miss's current College of Marine Sciences.

"What we do is basically bridge the gap between what marine researchers are doing and the public's understanding of how it affects them," she added. "Through our exhibits, they can look in and see that research in a tangible form."

Although the aquarium would grow considerably, Walker stressed the importance of retaining a large availability of "green space" for families to enjoy fishing, picnicking and other leisure activities.

Scott Aquarium has been inspiring students, educators and the public at large for the last 20 years – and in many respects, it's just getting started.

Each year at Scott Aquarium more than 31,000 teachers, students and adults discover the marine sciences firsthand through award-winning programs that have served as models for other national and regional programs. In addition to teachers and students, another 50,000 visitors encounter both plants from the Gulf of Mexico and aquatic species and their habitats featured in the center's 48 aquariums.

There, they encounter live animals like alligators, amphibians, turtles and nonvenomous snakes. A touch-tank allows visitors to get a "hands-on" experience – literally – with starfish, sea urchins, hermit crabs and other invertebrates. Rounding out the experience are other interactive marine science exhibits and environmental art galleries, featuring aquatic works by noted regional artists. Guests also can relax in the aquarium's 313-seat auditorium and view continuously running videos featuring sharks, dolphins and other sea-related topics.

Scott Aquarium recently was given approval by the secretary of state's office in cooperation with the State Board of Trustees of the Institutions of Higher Learning to conceive a master plan for the new facility, which would be built on the current site at Point Cadet.

That kind of expansion would benefit the public and the state economy alike, Walker said, adding, "We see about 80,000 people annually – and we did a market analysis in 1999 that showed if we built a state-of-the-art aquarium, we could have 765,000 people attend just the aquarium on an annual basis."
By adding an IMAX-style theater, another 248,000 people would flock to the facility, meaning "we could see a million people a year," she said.

Walker said that in the past, people have come to the Gulf Coast for one of three things: fishing, golfing or gaming.

"But if there are more family convention-type things to do, then they might stay an additional night – which means more money spent at the restaurants, more money spent at hotels," she said.

"One more night means a lot more money to the economy of this state. Some think that with the new aquarium, instead of people going to New Orleans to stay and then taking a day trip to the coast, people will start staying on the coast and taking their day trip to New Orleans."

Walker said the expanded aquarium probably would be built first because the revenue it created would help fund the other projects.

Part of what makes Scott Aquarium so unique is that it has one foot in tourism and another in education. Funded in the Gulf Coast Research Laboratory's line-item budget, Scott Aquarium has received several prestigious grants – including a recent one by the National Science Foundation that makes the aquarium headquarters for the Central Gulf of Mexico Center for Ocean Sciences Education Excellence (COSEE). The grant is funded in conjunction with the National Sea Grant College Program and the Office of Naval Research.

Each year, about 31,000 pre-college teachers and their students come from around the country to the renowned aquarium to "learn and develop their own programs," Walker said.

"Our mission is to increase awareness of marine and aquatic environments in the public and in our 31,000 pre-college students and teachers," she said. "We realize not everyone is going to become a scientist – nor would we want them to be – but we can empower these people to make more responsible decisions about resources and the fragility of our environment and how we're all interconnected."

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July 16, 2003 9:37 AM

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