Off the Deep End

Dessert at the opening gala of Colorado's Ocean Journey is sure to be tasty, and a clever trick for the eye: a milk chocolate seashell filled with vanilla-bean mousse, then topped with an edible pearl.

The delight of illusion, after all, is the secret to a splendid soiree--and key to a modern aquarium.

Part funhouse, part zoo, Ocean Journey is billed as "edutainment." Fantasy laps onto the shores of reality here: Waterfalls plunge over concrete walls carefully sculpted to resemble volcanic rock; fake salamanders hide under hinged stones that unsuspecting visitors will open with a shriek. The aquarium harbors real trees, artificial trees and real trees that are dead.

In the Colorado exhibit, living mushrooms climb over a living tree.
In the Indonesia exhibit, fake mushrooms dot a manufactured tree.
"It's interesting to try to tell the difference between the two," says Ocean Journey CEO Jim Hekkers.

In fact, at Ocean Journey--set to open sometime in June--a lot of things are not what they seem.

The aquarium was designed to convey an environmental message--with the backing of big corporate money. It was intended to be educational--but is filled with bells and whistles that could be a high-tech distraction.

The pricey admission to the aquarium's May 22 black-tie gala--ranging from $600 per individual to $100,000 for the presenting sponsor, the law firm of Holme Roberts & Owen--certainly hasn't deterred Denver's A-list from signing up. The crowd will include such civic boosters as jeweler Tom Shane and businessman Charlie Gallagher, along with the top brass from corporations like US West, which donated $5 million and fifteen years' worth of in-kind services (like installation of its phone service) to become Ocean Journey's primary sponsor. Proceeds from the gala will be funneled into environmental conservation projects and "Ocean Passages," a program that will provide free admission to 50,000 low-income schoolchildren each year.

"Most of these people [attending the gala] have already given money" to the actual building of Ocean Journey, says gala chairwoman Kalleen Malone. "They've coughed up even more to be a part of this evening."

The party, featuring entertainment by a troupe of Balinese dancers and singer Linda Ronstadt, will bathe its guests in special effects. Upon arrival, each couple will receive binoculars donated by Invesco Funds Group, along with a "passport" to their evening's aquatic adventure on the Platte. The 1,500 guests will sip cocktails in the aquarium, then move to a 30,000-square-foot tent in the parking lot. The tent, says Malone, will be decorated "to create a sense of being immersed, of being underwater."

Volunteers organizing the event chose its theme, "Let the Journey Begin"--which, somebody discovered only after it was too late to change, is also the slogan for the U.S. Navy. Plans for the dinner menu also hit an unfortunate snag when it was discovered that the main course, Chilean sea bass--masquerading as stylish seafood--is actually a species protected by the Chilean government under its real name, Patagonian toothfish. ("You see it listed on menus as Chilean sea bass--because they would be busted if they listed it by its real name," explains a spokesperson for the National Marine Fisheries Service. "And anyway, who would want to eat something called a toothfish?")

The chef has now settled on baquetta sea bass. It's a compromise that nobody seems to mind.

US West Presents: Colorado's Ocean Journey, as it is officially known, started out nearly a decade ago as a few scribbles on a cocktail napkin at a sushi bar in Japan. Today it is one of the most expensive aquariums in the nation, a $93.7 million, 106,500-square-foot home to Sumatran tigers, nurse sharks and custom wave machines.

In 1991, after years of training and studying sea and land mammals in the U.S., Asia and Africa, Ocean Journey founders Judy Petersen-Fleming and her husband, Bill Fleming, came home to Denver.

"Denver's great," says Petersen-Fleming, a third-generation Coloradan whose father, a Golden geologist, owned an oil firm. "I don't think you could come with two smiles and a cocktail napkin anywhere else in the country and find the open arms we did.

"It took a long time, though--don't get me wrong."
Former mayor Federico Pena and the Denver Zoo had proposed an aquarium for City Park in the 1980s, but that idea was squelched by surrounding residents. When the Flemings announced their intentions nearly a decade later, aquarium plans were already on the drawing board in Littleton and Westminster. Soon, however, Ocean Journey's fundraising success beat out that of its rivals.

"What we did differently was that we really reached out to the private sector in a big way," Petersen-Fleming recalls. "We went into a law firm and said, 'Just help us any way you can to get our nonprofit status and we'll put your name on an exhibit!'"