The long-awaited, highly anticipated Journey to Churchill exhibit opened today at the Assiniboine Park Zoo with a rush of families and fanfare.
But the biggest stars of the $90 million, four-hectare exhibit were the polar bears — especially the female bears, Aurora and Kaska, who splashed in their own pool for the first time and astounded visitors who could see them swimming overhead in the 21.3-metre-long Sea Ice Passage, which is three metres wide and 2.5 metres high, inside the Gateway to the Arctic building.
Don Peterkin, chief operations officer for the Assiniboine Park Conservancy, said the exhibit gives visitors a chance to see animals in habitats that are as close to natural as possible while exposing them to educational aspects such as climate change, conservation and wildlife preservation.
"We wanted to create something that was a signature exhibit. There’s nothing like this anywhere in the world. This is the No. 1 northern species exhibit and it’s appropriate for Manitoba with the focus on polar bears and the polar bear capital of the world (Churchill), " Peterkin said.
The exhibit also includes a 360-degree theatre that shows a short film about the Churchill area, wildlife and the seasons through the eyes of an indigenous family.
"We’re creating awareness of what’s in our own back yard," Peterkin said.
The new exhibit features multiple viewing areas for northern wildlife, including polar bears, muskoxen, snowy owls and arctic fox, with many interactive elements, such as a bowhead whale dig and the Churchill Northern Studies Shelter.
The zoo will be open until 5 p.m. today and resume its normal 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. operating hours Friday.
To avoid lineups, visitors are encouraged to purchase tickets in advance online at www.assiniboineparkzoo.ca/tickets. Tickets are valid for 90 days from the date of purchase. Visitors will enter through the zoo's new entrance at 2595 Roblin Blvd.
The price of admission ranges from $18.50 for adults to $10 for children ages three to 12. The zoo is offering a $10 Tuesday admission price discount from July 8 to December 30, 2014.
To celebrate the zoo's reopening after being closed for 10 days, special activities and entertainment are planned for the weekend. Visitors from today to Sunday will receive a free Journey to Churchill collectible polar bear pin while quantities last. The zoo's new mascot, Winston the polar bear, will also be making appearances and posing for photos with visitors.