Doug Robinson: The Loveland Living Planet Aquarium: A 17-year odyssey

Published: Sunday, May 25 2014 3:10 p.m. MDT

Brent Andersen poses May 14 inside the Loveland Living Planet aquarium. Anderson spent nearly two decades trying to build an aquarium in Utah and went deep into debt to do so.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

DRAPER — Brent Andersen is standing in the middle of a swirling swarm of children and their parents in the shark tunnel of the Loveland Living Planet Aquarium, looking as nonchalant as possible. To most observers, he is watching sharks like everyone else, but what he is really doing is eavesdropping. This is the way he likes to spend his breaks.

“That excitement you hear,” he says, “that’s the reason I do this. That’s how I feel about it. It’s like I’m 6 years old again and sharing that passion.”

This is why he lived on Top Ramen and peanut butter well into middle age. This is why he maxed his credit cards and got into debt up to his eyeballs. This is why friends were telling him to give it up and get on with a “real” career.

This is why a marine biologist lives in landlocked Utah, 800 miles from the ocean.

It makes no sense. Would an alpine skier live in Kansas? Andersen walked away from a secure job on the California coast to return to Utah to build a world-class aquarium in his home state. His vision was finally realized 17 years later with the opening in Draper on March 25.

The aquarium reached 200,000 visitors on Day 36 and is on pace to reach the million mark within a year. According to Andersen, it ranks fourth among the nation’s aquariums in attendance. Part of this is probably attributable to the newness of the aquarium, but the aquarium also had long lines and sustained attendance when it was temporarily housed in smaller facilities in downtown Salt Lake City and in Sandy.

“It’s been a long, 17-year odyssey,” says Andersen, as he surveys the scene, winding his way through the children past penguins, otters, sharks, touching pools and rain forest exhibitions.

It began with a book. At the age of 5, Andersen was given “The Sea,” a large Time-Life publication filled largely with photos and captions. Looking through the pages, he was enthralled. His parents read it to him repeatedly at his request, and his fascination with the sea began. He keeps the book in his office, now dog-eared, battered and missing pages.

There is a photo of a scuba diver that he turned to frequently. His parents explained that the diver was a marine biologist. He decided that’s what he would do, and he never grew out of his childhood fascination or moved onto other things over the years as most kids do. Well-meaning adults encouraged him to consider other goals — after all, there was no ocean in Utah — but he was resolute.

“It was all I wanted to do,” he says.

He was captivated by TV shows about the ocean, especially those featuring legendary marine biologist Jacques Cousteau. Later, as a college student, he studied French “just in case” he was able to get a job aboard Cousteau’s ship. He became a certified scuba diver and made so many dives that he stopped counting at 150.

In his formative years, he studied everything he could find that related to the sea. “Whenever my friends had a question about animals, it was, ‘Ask Brent,’ ” he says. “I liked to talk about it, and the other kids enjoyed it. I enjoyed sharing what I knew. Now I’m doing the same thing.”

After graduating from Hillcrest High, he took a job in a biotech lab and waited until he was 21 before he worked up the nerve to take a college class. “I didn’t feel confident I could do college-level work,” he says, but when he earned an A in a biology course his confidence soared. He began taking more classes at Salt Lake Community College until he ran out of science courses.

“It became clear I had to get to an ocean somewhere,” he said.

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