Tapani Vuori wants to redefine public aquariums, transforming them from static exhibits and turning them into immersive experiences. The Center’s latest display, “Humpbacks of Hawai‘i Exhibit & Sphere,” is a perfect example of this nascent transformation.
“It’s literally a virtual whale encounter,” says Vuori, Maui Ocean Center’s general manager. “It brings our guests eye-to-eye with humpback whales like never before.”
As the first-of-its-kind in Hawai‘i, the Sphere marks a new era in the “confluence of technology and marine observation,” according to the Center’s description. The new experience will allow guests to connect with humpbacks in their world through the integration of 4k imagery, 3D active glasses and a 7.1 surround sound system. Developed, produced and directed by Daniel Opitz of Ocean Mind, the captivating film includes footage from two seasons in the waters surrounding Maui.
The exhibit’s main highlight is a virtual whale encounter in the Sphere. At 58 feet in diameter, the monolithic dome theatre consists of a screen that is larger than the average size of an adult humpback whale, placing viewers in perfect proportion to the whale’s true size. The exhibit portrays the whales’ nomadic lifestyle, allowing visitors to immerse themselves in their songs, signals and social bonds.
“Until now, people have only observed humpback whales from above the ocean’s surface, witnessing their power and size during their infamous breaches,” Vuori says. “Our exhibit transports guests deep into the ocean, giving them an inside look into the complex and vibrant lives of Maui’s humpback whales, and allowing them to forge new connections with one of nature’s greatest marvels.”
The Center, however, offers many more marine wonders. The largest aquarium in Hawai‘i, this indoor/outdoor marine park at Mā‘alaea Harbor showcases more than 60 exhibits dedicated to the conservation of the Islands’ indigenous sea life. And Vuori is quick to point out that they release up to 80 percent of the sea life here back to the ocean.
“We want to educate people about the ocean and its importance in our ecosystem,” Vuori says. “We value sustainability and support environmental issues that will make positive impacts for generations to come.”
Guests can see one of the world’s largest Pacific coral collection, glimpse endangered Hawaiian green sea turtles, pet a starfish or hold a sea urchin in the tide pool touch tank. Walk through an acrylic tunnel that passes through a 750,000-gallon saltwater tank and watch as reef sharks, stingrays and tropical fish swim overhead. Other experiences, such as the Behind-the-Scenes Tour and Shark Dive Maui, also contribute to the experience.
“Maui Ocean Center is honored to have been named one of the Top 10 Aquariums in the World by TripAdvisor,” noted Vuori, in a 2018 blog post. “We appreciate every individual traveler who visited Maui Ocean Center and rated their experience. The overwhelmingly positive feedback speaks volumes to the passion and dedication of our team, a group of individuals who truly deserves the recognition for this monumental achievement. For the past 20 years, they are the ones who connect our mission and vision with each and every guest in a way that creates memorable experiences while fostering a sense of wonder and respect for Hawaii’s marine life.”
Another dimension of the aquarium is the Maui Ocean Center Marine Institute (MOCI), a 501c3 nonprofit organization that rests on three foundational pillars: rescue, rehabilitation and release of Hawaiian sea turtles in collaboration with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Fisheries; maintain a repository of rare and endemic Hawaiian coral in collaboration with the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR); and provide educational opportunities in marine science and conservation.
“We really need to stop the commercialization of our natural resources, and start protecting the environment and our waters,” Vuori asserts. “I know this may sound hypocritical from a guy who oversees an aquarium that charges admission but these issues truly matter to us—and they should to everyone. We truly do have a responsibility to the community and our surrounding waters.”
192 Mā‘alaea Rd., Wailuku, 808.270.7000, www.mauioceancenter.com