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

Published: Monday, May 26 2014 12:34 a.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.

He sent resumes to every college that had an ocean, a marine biology program and a biotech firm nearby. He found all of the above at the University of California-Santa Barbara. At 23, he packed up an old Toyota and drove to California to begin a new job and pursue an education. He worked for Dako, a Danish biotech company that specialized in cancer research, while earning a degree in marine biology, but positions in that field were difficult to find.

He had a good job at Dako, mixing chemicals and working out of an office that overlooked the beach, “but I still wanted to do something in my field,” he says. He stumbled into a quote by televangelist Robert Schuler — “What would you attempt to do if you knew you couldn’t fail?” The answer, he decided, was to build aquariums. He pitched the idea to the Santa Barbara Zoo, which agreed to let him build a small aquarium there, but not the large one he envisioned. “Why not build one in Utah?” a friend from home asked him.

After forming a nonprofit group, he quit his job in 1998 and moved back to Utah to do just that. He was 33 years old. For the next few years he lived a spartan existence while trying to find donors and raise funds to build the aquarium. It was a tough sell. Andersen had never run a business and had never built a full-scale aquarium. “All indicators were that I can’t do this,” he said. “I believed I could.”

He was single and subsisting on the standard college diet of Ramen noodles and peanut butter. When letters arrived offering him a free credit card and instant credit, he eagerly accepted and soon racked up $37,000 in credit card debt. One of those letters arrived with a blank check offering up to $5,000. He wrote a check for $4,800. There were times he could barely pay his rent and employees.

“Are you nuts?” his friends would say. “You gotta get your career on track at your age. Quit messing around with this aquarium stuff. Get married and get a job.”

As Andersen recalls, “So many times I was down to a few hundred dollars in the bank. By 2003, I started to think it’s not going to happen. I didn’t know much more energy I could put into this. It was so hard for so long.”

He changed tactics. He decided to build a temporary, small aquarium to prove to investors that a large, permanent facility would work. He was able to raise money for the project; all that was needed was a location. Andersen told the Boyer Company, developers of the Gateway Mall, that he wanted to build his aquarium at Gateway — and, by the way, he couldn’t pay rent. He was given the space anyway. In 2004, he opened a 10,000-square-foot aquarium at a cost of $330,000.

The aquarium was an instant success, with long lines out the door every Saturday and a half-hour wait to get in. Customers were asking for more. After 16 months in business, Andersen began shopping for another location for a bigger aquarium. He was advised to find a downtown location, but property was too expensive. He settled on a 43,000-square-foot former grocery store in Sandy. It cost $1.4 million and opened in June 2006. Business skyrocketed, from 150,000 visitors at Gateway to 250,000 visitors the first year in Sandy. Wait till the novelty wears off, skeptics told Andersen. A year later there were 460,000 visitors and more long lines and more customers asking for more.

Andersen learned later that donors were watching all of this closely to see if a large aquarium could make it. This included officials from the Loveland Foundation, who, noting the success of the aquarium, were now ready to commit to the large-scale aquarium Andersen had struggled to fund for years. They offered $2.5 million, and other donors, seeing this, suddenly had the confidence to come up with the rest of the money.

“All those people took a chance on me,” says Andersen.

Andersen, who had traveled to various aquariums throughout the country over the years to collect ideas for his own aquarium, spent months designing his dream facility and finding ways to save money. Consultants told him it would cost $45 million to $70 million. He built it for $25 million by making hundreds of cost-saving decisions. He learned, for instance, that if a 21-foot building is shortened by one foot, contractors can use five sheets of wallboard instead of six.

The aquarium is 136,000 square feet. There are 30 tons of sand and 300,000 gallons of man-made salt water in one tank alone (and 700,000 gallons total). The 40-foot-long acrylic shark tunnel cost $500,000.

Andersen considers the facility a model of efficiency. Over the course of several weeks, the pristine water that is required for tanks containing highly sensitive coral reef and invertebrates, is “polished” and filtered and then sent to the shark tank, and after it has been used there it gets “polished” and filtered again and sent to the penguin tank. “After the penguins get done with it, we can’t use it anymore,” says Andersen. What little water that is left after evaporation is slowly released into the sewer system. According to Andersen, the Draper aquarium uses the same amount of water as the old facility even though there is 10 times more water in the tanks.

“We use more water for drinking fountains, toilets and landscaping sprinklers in a year (than in the fish tanks),” says Andersen. “Most of our water goes to landscaping.”

The aquarium is a massive undertaking. The act of securing animals itself is no small feat. One of the aquarium’s sea turtles came from a hospital in Florida, where it recovered after being struck by a boat and then attacked by a shark. Such injuries leave air trapped in the turtle’s shell, which means it’s too buoyant to dive underwater and therefore can’t be returned to the wild. Aquarium officials glue a pouch to the shell and fill it with weights to allow the animal to dive (the amount of the weights has to be fine-tuned to achieve the right level of buoyancy). Since turtles shed, the weights must be replaced and adjusted again every few months. To bring the turtle from Florida to Utah, Andersen had to arrange for an employee to sit on the jump seat of a Fed Ex plane — which necessitated a clearance by Homeland Security — so she could pour salt water on the animal’s eyes every few minutes and keep the shell smeared with Vaseline.

The penguins were flown from Galveston to Utah on Continental Airlines because the airline offers a temperature-controlled environment. The otter came from Long Island in dog crates. The toucans were placed on seats in the two rows of a Southwest Airlines jet. The sharks were trucked from Albuquerque, California and Las Vegas.

In the end, Andersen believes the aquarium serves as more than a diversion. “Of all those who come here, some percentage of them might be inspired to go into marine biology or the sciences as a career,” he says. “And in a bigger context, this might help them understand how the planet works and how animals live and how everyone in the world is connected to everything else. Then we’ll make better decisions.”

For his part, Andersen, 48, has finally settled into the life people were urging him to seek years ago, with a career, and a family (he married three years ago). Instead of working 12 to 14 hours a day, he is down to nine or 10.

“It feels great just to walk out there,” he says from his office. “I was just out there a few minutes ago and saw hundreds of school kids running around. Their excitement is what I felt as a little kid watching TV or looking at books, but now it’s a real place they can come and see things only inches away. That feels really good.”

Doug Robinson's columns run on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Email: drob@deseretnews.com

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