Age of Aquarium


This year the Waikiki Aquarium celebrates its 100th anniversary. For a century, it has been sharing the wonders of Hawaii’s undersea world with two-legged creatures above sea level. You and I, in other words.

Each year, roughly 350,000 local residents and out-of-state sightseers drop by for a tour of the facility. More than 30,000 of them are Hawaii schoolchildren and community-group members who attend marine-science classes and activities. Strolling through the Aquarium’s cave-like corridors, a visitor can expect to come face to fin with sharks and jacks, spiny sea urchins, cuttlefish, sea dragons. There are archerfish that spit water to catch bugs, menacing piranha from the Amazon (donated by Hawaii authorities who confiscated the illegal imports), venomous scorpion fish camouflaged as rocks, sea jellies so transparent you can see what they’ve been eating, plus a host of other creatures representing 420 species of aquatic animals and plants.

Originally conceived as a Kapiolani Park attraction to lure trolley riders to the “suburbs” of Waikiki, the original Honolulu Aquarium, as it was then called, was the brainchild of Honolulu Rapid Transit Company director Charles M. Cooke, who donated $8,000 toward the $12,800 construction cost. It opened on March 19, 1904 as the third public aquarium in the United States and one of only a dozen worldwide. Noted author and frequent visitor Jack London called it a “wonderful orgy of color and form.” Admission was a dime for adults and a nickel for children (about $2 and $1 in today’s dollars).

In 1955, when the aquarium was rebuilt and its name changed to the Waikiki Aquarium, it was the sixth largest aquarium in the country. Now it’s dwarfed by mega aquariums around the world.

(from left) A scorpion fish, a nautilus and a vintage aquarium postcard

photos courtesy the waikiki aquarium


“We can’t be as big as those aquariums,” says former Director Bruce Carlson, “but we’ve done things they couldn’t do.” These accomplishments include pioneering techniques for cultivating live coral, discovering the reclusive megamouth shark, hatching a chambered nautilus embryo and creating an exhibit of giant clams. Carlson recalls a West Coast researcher who insisted that the clam-world’s bulky behemoths couldn’t be kept alive in an aquarium. “Twenty-six years later our largest weighs 170 pounds,” he says.

Not that there haven’t been a few mishaps over the past century. Staffers still talk about what they call the Coral Wars, when the docile-by-day brain coral sent out six-inch sweeper tentacles at night to zap and burn a table coral that was growing into its territory. Or the time when “someone released our saltwater crocodile as a malicious prank,” says Carlson, who caught the snarling two-foot-long reptile a few hours later when it washed up on Waikiki Beach. And one aquarist will never forget the day he fell out of his sleeping quarters (on-site lofts made available to student aquarists) and splashed into the shark tank.

After all these years, you might say that the little Waikiki Aquarium is the ultimate survivor. It’s still around after two World Wars, the Great Depression, Hurricanes Iwa and Iniki, and a host of other upheavals. Now it faces another challenge in the form of two new Oahu aquariums. If an ocean science center is built as part of UH’s research complex at Kakaako, it will probably absorb the Waikiki Aquarium, which has been under UH’s umbrella since 1919. As for the aquarium now under way at Ko Olina, developers are keeping details under wraps and it’s too early to tell

what changes it will bring. Despite these rumblings, the Waikiki Aquarium is planning more innovative and award-winning exhibits, research and educational programs.

Although a century old, this is not your great-grandfather’s aquarium. If you haven’t visited lately, what better excuse than a centurion birthday party? And don’t forget the lei.