Kim Raff, Deseret Morning News
Children pet stingrays in the touch pool during a sneak preview.

SANDY — It was a whale-sized task for The Living Planet Aquarium to transform an old Sandy grocery store into attractive exhibits for unique marine life like sharks, jellyfish, stingrays and eels.

But in just seven weeks, staff members have created an up-close look at tropical ocean-dwellers and those that live in the local Salt Lake waters. The aquarium officially opens to the public today at 725 E. 10600 South.

"We started building and designing in one fell swoop," said aquarium operations manager Madlyn Runburg.

Rather than hiring pricey design firms to put together the exhibits, the aquarium used in-house employees. Contractors were brought in to build walls and put in plumbing and electricity, but staff and volunteers created most of the underwater playground.

Elaborate pieces like carved rocks and natural wood line the Utah Waters hall. Other detailed exhibits that the aquarium staff built themselves include a child-size coral community for kids to explore, a replica sunken ship and a petting tank for sting rays.

"That was a challenge," Runburg said. But, he added, "It's been a really creative process and certainly created a dynamic environment."

Hours away from the sneak preview of the aquarium exhibit on Thursday, electrical cords and paint tarps littered the floor, staff members were completing paint touch-ups, and fish still needed to be put in their tanks. Staff and volunteers have spent numerous nights in the aquarium in order to finish by the deadline.

Meanwhile, the fish have been at Salt Lake Community College until earlier this week, when they were moved into their new digs.

Previously housed in The Gateway shopping center, the aquarium became so popular that it outgrew the spot a year and a half after opening in 2004.

The Sandy exhibit is a "preview" of what aquarium officials hope will be a world-class, 90,000-square-foot site that they would like to be built in Salt Lake City. But returning to the capital city hinges on the Salt Lake County Council's approval of the placement of a $33.9 million bond on the November ballot.

The Salt Lake City Redevelopment Agency owns a piece of land on the corner of 500 South and 400 West, where the future bigger aquarium could sit. But the land is only available until June 30, 2008, because the agency doesn't want to hold the land for the aquarium beyond that time. Aquarium officials hope to start construction then.

Aquarium marketing director Janis Pierce says the preview exhibit gives a taste of things to come. The current 43,000-square-foot space includes a cafe, numerous multipurpose rooms and a small theater. Later this year, an endangered Utah species hall will open, as well as a biology station.

The Sandy location, Pierce said, "puts us right in the epicenter of Utah families."

"There's certainly been some question of why have an aquarium in the desert," she said. "Why not? Water is such a precious resource, and we don't have the access to the ocean and the world seas. This is a perfect place."