With room for at least six polar bears, places to see several species of animals at once and the domed, 360-degree Aurora Borealis Theatre — complete with northern lights on the ceiling — the still-under-construction Journey to Churchill exhibit at the Assiniboine Park Zoo is already filled with jaw-dropping detail.
"This is going to be the No. 1 Arctic and polar bear exhibit in the zoo world anywhere... and that’s really appropriate for Winnipeg and for Manitoba," said Don Peterkin, the zoo’s chief operations officer, who treated media members to a sneak peek of the Journey to Churchill exhibit Thursday. The world-class, four-hectare spectacle is designed to make visitors feel they have been transported to the Arctic and the Churchill coast.
"It will help put us on the map and help enhance the reputation of Manitoba as the polar bear capital of the world," Peterkin said.
The three different polar bear exhibits feature a total space that is 30 times larger than the old habitat for Debby, the zoo’s former polar bear who was the world’s oldest when she died at age 42 in 2008.
There’s the 21.3-metre long Sea Ice Passage, where people can walk through a three-metre-wide acrylic tunnel surrounded by water and watch seals and polar bears swimming overhead, separated by a nearly invisible barrier.
When the exhibit opens in June 2014, visitors will experience a variety of landscapes, tundra, boreal forest, and ice. The details include natural water barriers and artificial rock formations between animal species in the Wapusk Lowlands.
"You will have a layered effect (with the exhibits). You won’t see fences and mesh, all the things you are accustomed to seeing with zoo exhibits," Peterkin said. "If the animals happen to be standing in the right place, you’ll see an arctic fox in the foreground, muskox in the middle, a polar bear sniffing the air behind, with no apparent barriers between them. That’s the experience we are trying to create for people."
Peterkin said the price tag for the Journey to Churchill exhibit is $90 million, which includes the new south gate, food services, an underground electrical system, and sewer and water lines that will support future developments.