Sea lions are set to a make a big splash at Essex County's come 2013.
The $5.5 million sea lion and sting ray exhibit will take 10 months to build and open on the zoo's 50th anniversary, county officials announced during a ground breaking ceremony Monday.
"There used to be sea lions (here). They were very well known so we wanted to bring them back," Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. told Patch. "If you go to any major zoo, their key of the zoo is the sea lion exhibit, people love to see animals in water."
The 10,000 square foot exhibit that includes an 82,000 gallon pool will welcome up to four sea lions and a medley of sharks and sting rays that guests will be able to feed and touch.
"The thrill of ever touching a sting ray or a shark … the adults turn into instant kids," zoo director Dr. Jeremy Goodman said, adding that the public can feel at ease submerging their hands in the tank to feed the animals.
Each of the sting rays will have their barbs removed and the sharks are suction feeders, he said. "Safety will not be an issue."
The touch tank will include up to 20 small sharks and sting rays, Goodman said, "We're really emphasizing that human-animal bond."
Though construction will not impair zoo-goers, Goodman said the geese and ravens were relocated because they were too close to the construction site.
The exhibit's main building will include stone and rock work that is reminiscent of where sea lions come from in the West Coast, Michael Hanrahan associate partner for Clarke Caton Hintz, , said. He characterized the look of the building as "wharf-like" and said the public will be able to view the animals from multiple vantage points above and below the water.
The exhibit will be located in the center of the zoo, next to the penguin and the otter exhibits, officials said.
DiVincenzo praised the "first-class" project but said his motive was also to raise revenue for the that houses the zoo.
Once open, the exhibit is expected to rake in 50,000 additional visitors a year, increasing the zoo's revenue by $350,000, he said.
The entire project will be funded through capital money, the Open Space Trust Fund, the New Jersey Green Acres Program, the Zoological Society of New Jersey, , Covanta Energy and philanthropist and Short Hills resident David Tepper.
DiVincenzo said the Zoological Society will cover additional maintenance costs related to the exhibit. A $1 additional beautification charge tagged on to zoo admissions last year also raked in an additional $250,000 for the project, DiVincenzo said.
Arco Contruction Group from Elizabeth was awarded a $5.4 million competitive bid contract for the project.
"This is the most ambitious project we've ever taken," Goodman said. "It's going to be our largest exhibit that we are building to date, our most expensive, our most complex exhibit built to date."