Wednesday, May 1, 2002

Bruce Carlson posed in front of a display of native Hawaiian tropical fishes last week at the Waikiki Aquarium, where he has worked for the past 26 years. The former director has taken a job in Atlanta to oversee the development of a new aquarium being built there.

Carlson leaves behind ‘little gem’

The former director of the Waikiki
Aquarium has taken a post
with a Georgia project

By Helen Altonn

Bruce Carlson began a new job in Atlanta today, hoping to use many ideas for a new aquarium that were discussed for an ocean-awareness center in Kakaako.

"We can't do everything there because it's not (near) an ocean," the former Waikiki Aquarium director said in an interview before leaving Monday. "That's where Hawaii has an advantage."

But the $60 million world-class aquarium envisioned as an anchor in the Kakaako Makai Gateway Park is dead, a victim of a bad economy, he said.

Carlson said he enjoyed working with BancWestCorp. chief executive Walter Dods and other community leaders the past few years to raise money and plan the new facility. He said it "was a great opportunity" but the Legislature was not ready to commit the resources, even with private matching money.

Carlson stressed, however, that he did not resign after 26 years at the Waikiki Aquarium because of the defunct Kakaako aquarium plan or disillusionment with the University of Hawaii, which administers the facility. Family reasons prompted his move to the Georgia Aquarium Project, he said.

"We have to cheer him on in his endeavors and remember we have a lot of wonderful opportunities here," said Cynthia Hunter, coral reef expert and aquarium curator, now acting director.

Carlson is the second person hired to plan and build the Georgia Aquarium, funded with $200 million from the Marcus Foundation, established by Bernie Marcus, co-founder of Home Depot.

The project president is Jeff Swanagan, former Florida Aquarium director. Carlson is vice president for life sciences, including all animals, conservation and science. The third employee is Steve Kaiser, formerly at Sea Life Park.

"It says a lot for Hawaii that two of the first employees are from here," Carlson said.

Carlson joined the Waikiki Aquarium as a graduate student in 1976 and was appointed director in 1990. He said he had expected to be here for its 100th anniversary, in 2004.

"It's a really big event," he said.

Carlson spent Sunday working on the aquarium's latest addition: a $500,000 gallery featuring a 4,000-gallon tank (others hold only 300 gallons) for South Pacific marine life.

"It's a state-of-the-art, new kind of exhibit," he said, with video animations, audio and computer graphics.

Fund-raising was done five years ago for the project and the aquarium has been in limbo since the focus was on a Kakaako center, he said.

"It's very bad for this aquarium. We have tried to keep the vision five years out and raise money, but we can't ask for money to build at the aquarium when the news is they're going to tear it down. We are five years behind in fund-raising, with no new projects on the drawing board," he said.

This is critical, Carlson said, because facilities must constantly be improved so people will keep going back.

"We have constantly tried to have something new every year," he said. "We have high respect and repeat visitation by tourists."

The Waikiki Aquarium "is a great little aquarium, a little gem" that has won many awards for its programs and research, he said.

But it is nearly 100 years old and is in a deteriorating building that's almost 50 years old, he said. The sea wall, eroded over the past century, is being reinforced after a $1 million legislative appropriation.

Although designated and built "as a menagerie of marine life," the aquarium has developed "world-class education programs, the oldest education programs of any aquarium in the country," Carlson said. However, space is limited for expansion and parking, he said.

"Hawaii really needs an ocean-awareness center, not just a big aquarium. The mission should be much broader to help people love and understand the ocean."

Carlson said his proudest accomplishment at the Waikiki Aquarium "is keeping us out of trouble for 20 years."

"When you're relying on customers and fees, image is everything," he said.

The aquarium has struggled the last 10 years but has been doing all right while sister institutions across the country have been financially distressed, he said.

He credits the entire staff, most of whom are long-term employees, for transforming "a little rundown aquarium in the '70s to the little gem it is now."

Carlson sat on the waterfront in front of the aquarium last week with a video camera filming the sunset, the ocean and surfers "to play when I'm homesick for the sea."

"I'm going to miss this," he said, noting the aquarium's choice location "here in this wonderful park at the base of Diamond Head, with beachfront to the ocean and coral reef and tennis courts across the street."

Waikiki Aquarium facts

>> Overview: Third-oldest aquarium in the United States; considered the best small aquarium in the world, with 394 species, 2,100 specimens and more than 52 exhibits.

>> Location: 2777 Kalakaua Ave.

>> Hours: Open every day except Christmas, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

>> History: Opened March 19, 1904, by directors of the Honolulu Rapid Transit Authority "to show the world the riches of Hawaii's reefs" and entice passengers to ride to the end of the new trolley line.

>> Research program began with a marine biology laboratory in 1912; University of Hawaii became administrator of the aquarium in 1919.

>> Directors: Frederick Potter, 1904-1940; Spencer Tinker, 1940-1975; Leighton Taylor, 1975-1986; Bruce Carlson, acting director, 1986-1990, director, 1990-2002.

>> Annual budget: $2 million, with $480,000 from the state and the balance raised through fees, donations, the gift shop and tuition.

>> Staff: 37 full-time employees, 27 part-time employees, 38 affiliates, 205 volunteers.

>> Visitors: 340,000 last year.

>> Members: More than 3,000.

>> Phone: 923-9741

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