Sea Life Park is embarking on a five- to six-year master plan that involves an estimated $30-million redevelopment — the circa-1964 facility’s most ambitious ever.
The 10-project upgrade will add a new green sea turtle conservation center, said Valerie King, Sea Life Park general manager. Other highlights include adding an “active” volcano exhibit to the center of the shark tank and restoring part of a historic fishing village called Kaupo that once ran from the park to the ocean, King said.
Fast-growing leisure park operator Palace Entertainment, a subsidiary of the Madrid-based Parques Reunidos Group, bought the 22-acre park in 2008 from Dolphin Discovery of Cancun, Mexico. According to its website, the parent company owns and operates more than 60 parks located in 14 countries across Europe, America, the Middle East and Asia, including amusement and theme parks, zoos, water parks and marine life parks.
Stephany Sofos, a commercial real estate analyst, estimated the
redevelopment could approach
$30 million based on the extent
of the renovations the company
“I think it’s fabulous,”
Sofos said. “Attractions and destinations need to reinvent themselves to keep growing.”
King said the park’s redevelopment is on an aggressive permitting timetable, with public hearings expected in February and March.
Cathy Goeggel, president of Animal Rights Hawaii, said the organization will monitor the permitting closely.
Animal Rights Hawaii is generally opposed to facilities like Sea Life Park, which showcase cetaceans — whales, porpoises, dolphins — in captivity, Goeggel said. Since 2002, Maui has prohibited the exhibition of cetaceans and the rest of Hawaii should follow suit, she said.
Animal Rights Hawaii and the Hawaiian Humane Society were among those supporting a state Senate bill in the last session that sought to prohibit the Department of Agriculture from issuing permits for the transfer of cetaceans solely for breeding or entertainment purpose. That measure, which was opposed by Sea Life Park and Dolphin Quest, got deferred.
“Places like Sea Life park should be closed down. People should understand that these animals aren’t ours to use. Hawaii is such an ocean-oriented state, we need to show that we can appreciate and protect these animals without having them do tricks,” Goeggel said.
However, if the park is to remain open, Goeggel said it’s imperative that owners address deferred maintenance, which she said U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection reports show have negatively impacted animal welfare.
“We’ve complained to the U.S. Department of Agriculture and to the state Department of Land and Natural Resources about the state of the facility,” Goeggel said. “We got an inspection report from a structural engineer several months ago that was very concerning. The gift shop and the Hawaiian Ocean Theatre have been closed for months due to disrepair. Improvements are long overdue.”
Goeggel said she’s hopeful the park’s improvement plan will address animal welfare, especially as it pertains to the park’s controversial dolphin program.
Sea Life Park marketing manager Christina Leos said the master plan doesn’t address dolphins, but their welfare is part of the park’s ongoing list of smaller projects like shade covers.
The park is in full compliance with the USDA, the Animal Welfare Act, and the requirements of the National Marine Fisheries Service with regards to the care of captive marine mammals, Leos said. The facility’s local surveys indicate dolphin shows are in demand, she said.
The park is keeping its midday dolphin show at the Dolphin Lagoon, Leos said. But the master plan removes dolphins from the Hawaiian Ocean Theatre, which would relocate two of the park’s dolphins to a larger enclosure, she said.
If approvals are on track, King said the park expects to start updating its restaurant area and entry way next year — adding a Hawaiian sense of place, a commercial kitchen and opportunities for Waimanalo farmers to partner with the park.
The honu center is expected to start construction in 2020 and open later that year. The center is an expansion of a current exhibit.
Madison Rummage, a recent 6-year-old park visitor from Greenville, S.C., was beyond excited to have her first live turtle experience.
“My mom loves turtles so I have a stuffed animal turtle. But I’ve never seen a real one. I like the way that they swim,” Rummage said as she peered through an enclosure.
The new honu exhibit will have three outdoor pools where parkgoers can look through underwater glass viewing areas to watch green sea turtles and their hatchlings swim. It also includes an indoor-exhibit where parkgoers may learn more about turtles and the science of conservation through programs, films, displays, and the chance to get close to actual hatchlings.
As the only sanctioned breeding colony of honu in the U.S., the park has released more than 16,000 sea turtles since 2005, Leos said. Currently, the park releases anywhere from 200 to 800 green sea turtles each year, she said.
King said the park is
seeking approval from
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to dedicate one of its turtle pools to the hawksbill turtle, which is endangered.
“We wanted to put a greater focus on local animals and to continue growing our conservation efforts,” King said. “We know turtles are very popular and what’s happening with the traffic on the North Shore as everyone tries to see them. This will be a better place to view them.”
The park also hopes to renovate its reef tank in the Shark Cave in 2020.
“We’ll do a volcano inside the tank to show what lava looks like underwater. We’ll also turn the cave part of the exhibit into a lava tube,” King said. “We want people to understand how the Hawaiian Islands were formed.”
In 2021, the park will update its covered, open-air Hawaiian Ocean Theatre, which is currently out of service and has sparked controversy due to the extent of its needed repairs. The theater, which formerly housed the park’s dolphin show, will debut a new show, likely featuring penguins or sea lions. An aquarium also will be added.
Plans for the restored fishing village include a hale, a fishing structure and canoes. The Makapu‘u Meadow Fishing Village is patterned after Kaupo, a real fishing village northwest of Makapuu Point that sat on the peninsula where parts of Sea Life Park and Kaupo Beach Park now exist.
Scotty Reis-Moniz, president of the Hawaii Canoe Festival Foundation and the Waimanalo Canoe Club, said the community is excited about Sea Life Park’s growing commitment to the culture of the place they occupy.
“In the past under previous owners, there was a lack of engagement and acknowledgement of the place that made it hard for them to be successful because they didn’t have a connection to the community,” said Reis-Moniz, who was born and raised in Waimanalo.
Reis-Moniz said the neighborhood perception of Sea Life Park improved when the park “took responsibility for the sea” through its turtle release program. Now, the park is earning more favor by restoring a portion of Kaupo, Reis-Moniz said.
“Usually culture and tourism clash because companies bring guests without respecting the host. But Sea Life Park knows that if you understand and support the community in the right way, the community will have a better way of welcoming visitors. The foundation of tourism is the locals. They are the gravy on the rice,” Reis-Moniz said.
The park also will move its aviary in 2021 to its seaside gardens where it can be paired with the seabird rehabilitation area. Since 2005, the park has rescued and released over 4,000 seabirds.
“We’ll have a conservation area with a place for visitors to learn, rest and look at the exhibits,” Leos said.
In 2023, King said the park plans to put a large air-conditioned aquarium at the space that currently houses the sea lion show.
“We’ll show marine life in the various depths of the ocean from its sunlight, twilight and deep zones,” she said. “We want people to have the feeling that they are going down into the ocean.”