Shawn Hiester photo
A 1,500 sq. ft. (139.3 sq m) bar/restaurant and a single-family residence had to be demolished prior to construction.
Dubbed “the newest aquarium in the nation’s oldest city,” the St. Augustine Aquarium will serve as one of Florida’s splashiest tourist attractions once construction is complete. The privately-funded, $8 million dollar project consists of 250,000 gallons of indoor and outdoor marine exhibits, including a snorkel adventure, zip line, shipwreck reef tank, stingray encounter and other smaller exhibits. More than 70 species and 1,000 fish will be housed in the new state-of-the-art facility.
“This project is very important to my wife, Kathy, and me because it represents our passion — the underwater world and how to conserve it,” said Shawn Hiester, aquarium owner and founder. “I’m an avid scuba diver and Kathy is a biologist. We used to watch episodes of Seahunt and The Underwater World of Jacques Cousteau as kids. This project is the fulfillment of our life-long dreams to own an aquarium and share it with others.”
The project will feature an interactive 80,000-gallon snorkel adventure habitat, which will be a re-creation of the Florida reef environment, including stingrays and hundreds of fish. While some visitors will make use of clear acrylic view windows, others can actually put on a wetsuit, mask and snorkel and experience the reef environment. A shark and stingray lagoon will allow visitors to interact with and feed sharks and rays alongside eel and seahorse exhibits. Beginners and the more experienced will have access to a zipline and challenge course to be operated by Zipstream Aerial Adventures, which specializes in eco-adventure parks.
Hiester, who’s logged over 500 dives all over the world, including Antarctica, said Florida and the Caribbean remain his favorite places to dive.
“We have such an incredible variety of species that are easily accessible to recreational divers, including the big stuff like sharks, goliath grouper, green and loggerhead turtles, to name a few. One of the primary goals of our project is to accurately recreate the Florida reef environment. I’ve relied heavily on my scuba diving experience to help create the vision of our public aquarium.”
Hiester also brings a great deal of knowledge to the project.
“Before we began our aquarium journey, I was involved in design and construction for 28 years as a project manager, business owner and consultant. That general contractor experience has played a significant role in our ability to design and construct a public aquarium attraction that gives us a big bang for our bucks, while maintaining a cost structure that helps us keep the cost of admission low.
“We broke ground on the project in March of this year and began Phase I construction immediately,” Hiester said. So far, we’ve been working on demolition of existing structures on the property, site clearing and grading, installation of utilities, perimeter fencing, stabilized sub-base for our snorkel adventure tank, along with underground tank piping, installation of the fiberglass tank and acrylic vision panels and the tanks and equipment for our life support systems.”
A 1,500 sq. ft. (139.3 sq m) bar/restaurant and a single-family residence had to be demolished prior to construction. Fitzgerald Excavating from St. Augustine took seven days to complete the demolition and hauling of the materials to a landfill. The contractor used a large excavator with a thumb attachment to grasp the material.
Equipment being used on the project has included a large Caterpillar excavator, Ford and Kubota backhoes, Caterpillar loaders, a 40-ft. (12.1 m) Genie man lift, a Terex lull with a 40-ft. boom and a Kubota tractor with a bush hog, chipper and forklift. Some of the main materials being utilized include concrete, pressure-treated lumber, sand, shells, gravel, asphalt paving, pre-engineered steel, fiberglass, acrylic and recycled concrete.
Approximately 6,500 cu. yds. (4,969 cu m) of dirt will be brought to the site or moved. The property is five acres of heavily wooded and pristine land and is less than a mile east of the Interstate 95 and State Road 16 interchange.
“The biggest challenge will be construction of the 8,000 square-foot aquarium building, while the Snorkel Adventure and Zipline are open,” Hiester explained. “Also, water chemistry, temperature and life support systems controls have very tight tolerances.”
The zip line and adventure course will include an assortment of aerial elements that start with a basic course and allow guests to work their way up to advanced level courses. The tree canopy will be used for the majority of the elements and includes a zip line over live sharks in the shark lagoon. A full-service family restaurant will join the aquarium on site, providing for weddings, parties and other special events.
“In terms of sustainability, we are utilizing recycled concrete for sub-base material, we are carefully preserving as many trees as possible and our species selections are acquired only from sustainable sources.”
Hiester also said there have already been a number of hurdles.
“Our first site fell through, and it took us another six months to find the right one. The biggest setback so far has been trying to get a permit. Communication between the various county departments, such as planning, zoning, building and utilities, is lacking. That has caused us at least six months of delays trying to navigate through it. We’ve have had to wait to begin the sub-base preparation, curbs and sidewalks, asphalt paving, line striping, landscaping, modular building installations, snorkel tank foundations and access deck, outdoor showers and the other marine exhibits.
Weather also has been an issue.
“This summer has been the wettest on record in northeast Florida. As a result, our site contractors have suffered. They’re great guys and we expect them to make up the time over the next month or so,” said Hiester.
Marine Conservation Partners is the company designing, fabricating and installing the exhibits for the aquarium. Marine Conservation Partners CEO Mat Roy, who’s been featured on the internationally recognized television series “Fish Tank Kings” on Nat Geo Wild, explained how the project is being built in two phases.
“Phase I is an exterior snorkel lagoon that is 80,000 gallons,” said Roy, who brings over two decades of experience in the marine aquarium industry. “Guests will have the opportunity to snorkel over Caribbean fish and stingrays and also see the animals and have a behind-the-scenes tour of the aquarium’s filtration. Phase II will be a much larger building with 17 exhibits, including fish from around the state of Florida. We want this to be an educational experience. There’s lots to learn about our Florida waters. Our guests will also have the opportunity to dive in very large shark tanks. Divers will experience feeding large sharks viewing an underwater shipwreck.”
With extensive experience in building high-end aquariums for both residential and commercial clients, Roy has traveled the world, gaining knowledge from each experience.
“We want to create interactive exhibits that are unique for the guests to enjoy, but also the best home possible for the fish we’re going to display. Acrylic is a medium that has been used in aquariums dating back to the seventies, and I’ve spent the last two decades working with acrylic, so it’s certainly been a great learning adventure. Just as I push the envelope building custom aquariums around the world, St. Augustine is no different. I will push the envelope here creating unique aquariums for guests to enjoy.”
Roy said building an exterior snorkel exhibit brings definite challenges.
“So far, we’ve put together a 50-foot diameter fiberglass tank. Shawn and I have single-handedly put this entire system together. I am now installing four large acrylic windows that wrap around half the aquarium. The viewing panels are 15 feet by four feet. If guests do not want to snorkel, they will be able to view the aquarium through these acrylic windows.
Regarding the snorkel adventure, “We have a lot of filtration parts to put together. Phase II of the aquarium will certainly have its challenges as we put together another 17 exhibits, including the stingray lagoon, shark lagoon and other exhibits that will house fish from around Florida.”
The Hiesters have been working full-time on the project for the past two-and-a-half years. The focus of the St. Augustine Aquarium program will be conservation through education.
“Conservation is critical to prevent the continued collapse of fish stocks throughout the world’s oceans, caused primarily by over fishing, by-catch and shark finning. Once people have the opportunity to experience the true magic of the underwater world, they will better understand how important it is that we protect it.”
The civil engineer for the project is Baker Klein Engineering, with GM Hill Engineering serving as the structural engineer. Nock Construction is the general contractor. Craig Sommers, AIA, and Caren Doherty, P. E., with Doherty Sommers Architect Engineers Inc. in Jacksonville Beach, Fla., both worked on the design plan.
“We wanted the visitors to experience the aquatic nature of the building’s use prior to entering the building,” Sommers said. “To do this, we created a sea life mural on the façade of the building, while allowing visitors to glimpse at the displays through the high glass in the lobby. Once inside, the exhibits allow the visitors to meander and explore different aquatic scenes, pulling you through to the main area where the shark tank is located.
“This project is unique for us, so we relied on Shawn’s and Mat’s knowledge to provide us with guidance on creating spaces for the exhibits. We needed to understand their vision, so we could translate that into the layout of the interior. They wanted visitors to learn and see the displays at their own pace and in their own order. For this reason, there is room to move around and see many of the exhibits from all sides. They also wanted to visually link the different exhibits together. An example of this is the shipwreck. The bow of the pirate ship rests in the shark tank, while the stern of the ship is off to the side as a children’s play area.”
The main concern was getting all the exhibits, displays and other functions to fit within the limited size of the structure. Doherty said working within the constraints of a tight budget was the biggest challenge.
“We were able to address the concerns of having a limited building footprint by trying to pack a lot of educational and exciting experiences into a small building, while expanding the exterior experiences with an outdoor ray tank, several outdoor small fish tanks and a zip line. Our firm has been very involved with the planning and design of the project. We have worked closely with the civil engineer and the owners to create a memorable experience for guests.”
While the building is not anticipated to be LEED accredited, the design includes high insulation values in the thermal envelope, including the storefront glass, as well as energy efficient mechanical units.
“We want the visitors to come away from the building feeling like they learned something new about marine life,” said Sommers. “This was Shawn’s goal for the visitor’s takeaway experience. Our intent was to have the building accentuate the exhibits and allow visitors to gain. Those of us in Northeast Florida live near a variety of bodies of water that contain different sea life and coastal conditions. Our hope is that guests should come away with a greater understanding and appreciation of marine life through this project.”
Phase I is expected to open late this fall, with Phase II work completed by the end of summer 2016.