The Maui Ocean Center reopened in January after implementing a slate of technological and other improvements during a 10-month closure due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
The aquarium on Maalaea Bay northwest of Kihei, which attracted 442,000 visitors in 2019, closed last March 17 as the state issued stay-at-home orders and other regulations to combat the spread of coronavirus.
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"Like most everyone, we were thinking optimistically. We thought we'd be through this relatively quickly," director of marketing Toni Rojas said.
By June, management realized the pandemic was "unfortunately not headed in the right direction," and a plan for a long-term closure was needed.
"We decided to take advantage of the time to refresh the park from the front of house to back of house," Rojas said.
The Maui Ocean Center, opened in 1998, exclusively features animals native to Hawaii and includes one of the largest collections of live Pacific coral in the world, outdoor tide pools and a 750,000-gallon open ocean exhibit with a 240-degree viewing tunnel.
The center participates in research and conservation efforts, and all of the marine creatures housed at the center are considered "temporary" guests, Rojas said. Injured and sick animals are nursed back to health before being released back into the ocean.
During the shutdown, all of the aquariums received maintenance and also updates with new corals and other elements to improve the environments and make them more realistic to the creatures' real-world habitats.
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The center is open daily from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (a reduction from the typical hours of 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.), and while tickets could be purchased on site previously, now all passes must be purchased online. To observe capacity limitations and space out attendance, entry will be based on reservations with admissions every 30 minutes; the last reservations of the day will be at 1:30 p.m. Under the current guidelines and system the center is operating at less than 50% capacity, Rojas said.
Additionally, visitors can navigate the center using a new virtual park map that includes links to marine naturalist presentations and other information via QR codes provided at the front gate and throughout the park.
"We used to have six marine naturalist presentations given throughout the center, but they tend to create public gatherings, which we couldn't have anymore," Rojas said. "Now everything is virtual. The videos are on YouTube, and people can bring their headphones and listen to the presentations on their own devices."
In addition to the reduced hours and tightly monitored traffic, the center has implemented new health and safety protocols, including thermal temperature scans upon entry and mask-wearing and social distancing requirements. Hand-washing and sanitation stations are installed throughout the property.
The Seascape Restaurant, interactive exhibits, a children's playground and the Maui Ocean Center theater remain closed to promote social distancing and limit public contact with shared surfaces. The Reef Cafe offers an outdoor dining area, and its menu has been expanded to provide more options, such as salads and sandwiches, while the restaurant is shuttered.
The Humpback of Hawaii Exhibit and Sphere, launched in February 2019, is open. The presentation combines 3D glasses and 4K laser imagery to bring viewers into the underwater world of the whales, which were filmed in Maui waters over two seasons under the supervision of and with permits granted by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"We had to reduce capacity in the humpback theater to about 60%, and we are sanitizing the space after every showing, but it's still getting rave reviews," Rojas said.