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Originally published July 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified July 3, 2008 at 11:40 AM

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Guest columnist

Stories of the ocean go well beyond the beach

They cover more than two-thirds of the Earth's surface. They are home to most of the living organisms on the planet. They produce half of...

Special to The Times

They cover more than two-thirds of the Earth's surface.

They are home to most of the living organisms on the planet.

They produce half of the life-giving oxygen we breathe.

And they feed 60 percent of the world's population.

The world's oceans give life to all of Earth's creatures.

It is imperative then that we humans better recognize the role oceans play in our very existence. In fact, in its landmark 2004 report, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy stated that it is critical for humanity to fundamentally change the way we relate to and treat the oceans, including such water bodies as Puget Sound.

Here in Washington, Gov. Christine Gregoire, the Legislature and congressional delegation are taking action. They have recognized the need to restore and protect Puget Sound and have embarked on an extraordinary mission to clean and restore it by 2020.

As the U.S. Commission noted in its study, aquariums are at the forefront of efforts to teach our communities about the oceans and how we can protect them. This is a driving force for aquariums across the globe and a particularly exciting challenge for the Seattle Aquarium.

Given these changing imperatives, the aquarium must be more than simply a fun afternoon with the family. Our goal is for every visitor to the aquarium to come away with new knowledge about the life dwelling within Puget Sound as well as what can be done to help preserve it.

Thus we recognize that the power of an idea goes well beyond Pier 59 — it extends to the beaches with important stories told through experiential learning.

The aquarium's research on sea otters, the giant Pacific octopus and six-gill sharks, for instance, must somehow relate to and touch people of all ages and build new understanding of Northwest creatures that stimulates community dialogue about marine conservation.

This is, historically, our mission. Yet today, with our oceans at risk, it is our imperative.

In 2007, 811,000 visitors came through the aquarium doors, including 55,000 students. These numbers reflect the aquarium's emergence as the state's premier retail platform for marine conservation education — especially as a window on Puget Sound itself.

Spring brought busloads of students and families to the aquarium to enjoy the newly expanded facility with its extraordinary Window on Washington Waters and Crashing Waves exhibits. These new additions have continued to help us fully meet the demands of our mission.

Recognizing the need to modernize the aquarium, the community responded: More than 2,000 donors contributed to a $41 million public/private project to restore the structural integrity of the aquarium's 100-year-old Pier 59 and expand its space by 30 percent. A thousand rotted wood pilings were replaced by steel, the entrance was brought out to Alaskan Way and new exhibits bring visitors face to face with Puget Sound.

And we continue to build on that effort this year with a commitment to building our regional conservation efforts, raising more than $1 million in June at our Splash! auction.

We are well positioned to meet a shift in the management of the aquarium to the model now followed at all other leading aquariums and zoos: continued public ownership of the aquarium but under nonprofit management. It is a move embraced by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums which has reaccredited the aquarium after a rigorous review of our operations — from animal-husbandry practices to education, research, safety and financial strength.

With the National Science Foundation, NOAA, the state of Washington and leading foundations supporting our important outreach and research efforts, the Seattle Aquarium is at the forefront of global marine-conservation education work.

Thus we face the future with a clear mission: inspiring conservation of our marine environment.

After all, the Sound is just the beginning. It teaches us about the life-giving role of the oceans and what we must do to protect them.

Robert W. Davidson is CEO of the Seattle Aquarium Society, the Aquarium's 501(c) 3 support group, which led the recent $41 million capital campaign project.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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