The new Journey to Churchill exhibit is going to put visitors to the Assiniboine Park Zoo up close and personal with Arctic wildlife.
On Oct. 17, Don Peterkin, chief operating officer of the zoo, led the media on a tour of the new 10-acre exhibit that will "put Winnipeg on the map."
Right now it might not look like much, but come June 2014 all the flat concrete walls will be covered in artificial rock, inches-thick acrylic panels will hold back more than a million litres of salt water, and polar bears and seals will go swimming to their hearts’ content.
"There is not an exhibit in the world like this," said Peterkin. "This is definitely not the zoo I grew up with."
The new exhibit comes with the hefty price tag of $90 million, double the initial estimates.
"But it’s twice what it was when originally planned, and it was in the range of $41 million way back when," said Peterkin. "But at that point there was no restaurant, at that point there was no south gate and we were living with the old electrical system that was installed in the 1930s."
In addition to the new gate and restaurant, the added element of seals also boosts costs due to needing an extensive filtration system for the water.
The most impressive part of the exhibit, by far, is the Sea Ice Passage. The tunnel, 21.3 metres long, three metres wide, and two-and-a-half metres high, will allow visitors to walk underneath swimming polar bears and seals, in separate enclosures of course.
"There is no polar bear facility like this in the world," said Dr. Brian Joseph, chief of zoological operations. "It’s an incredibly diverse environment with vegetation, rock structures, water, vistas where they can see animals that would potentially be prey animals. So it’s going to be the most stimulating environments polar bears can have."
The three polar bear enclosures will be 15 times the size of the Manitoba Polar Bear Export Program’s standards.
"The size of one polar bear enclosure is 20 times the size of the one Debbie lived her life in," said Peterkin during the tour. "And that is only one of three exhibits. That’s the largest one, but in total all three are 30 times the size."
In addition to polar bears and seals, the exhibit will host other species. Muskox, Arctic foxes, snowy owls, and caribou will also take up residence in the exhibit.
As well, a 360-degree theatre will inform visitors of the challenges of climate change and the effect it is having on the wildlife of the Arctic.
"It’s a wonderful thing and it’s something that I’ve done many times before where people have hired me to actually come in and start up an exhibit," said Joseph. "So I’m really used to coming in and not having the advantage of days, hours, years of discussion, but instead someone saying ‘Well here’s what it is, here’s what we’re trying to accomplish, how do we do it?’ So I’m very comfortable with this, very excited."
Once complete, the exhibit will naturally be open during the winter, but wintertime construction will be limited, said Peterkin.