Depth of Experience

20 years with Oregon Coast Aquarium gives CEO deep blue view of world

While in her office overlooking the entrance to Lincoln County’s most popular attraction, she’s like a child in a candy store — she watches trees and shrubbery get yanked out to make way for a new admissions and ticketing station. “Wow, what a change.”

Then a nuthatch alights on the feeder suction cupped to her office window. “Spring’s coming early.”

Keiko put us on the map': Oregon Coast Aquarium turns 25 | KVAL

Now the show really gets going — Carrie E. Lewis lugs into her second-floor office 10 large architectural design images for the aquarium’s five new capital improvement projects and one program improvement.

In the brochure, “Our Ocean, Our Coast, Your Aquarium” she states: “Since opening in 1992, the Oregon Coast Aquarium has immersed over 15 million visitors in the mysteries of the Pacific Ocean.”

Sleepover - Oregon Coast Aquarium

Lewis is showing me the remodeling and new construction phases:

  •  new ticketing area-offices
  •  remodeling the entrance, great hall and café
  •  creating a children’s nature play area
  •  improving three indoor galleries
  •  building a marine rehabilitation center

We are talking about $18 million and some change for these huge improvement and enhancement projects for the aquarium. They’ve raised almost $14 million toward this adventure in expansion.

“As we grow toward our vision of serving as a trusted resource for ocean education and conservation in the Pacific Northwest, it is more important than ever that our facility reflects that,” Lewis said.

That’s entertainment — and science

This proposed state-of-the-art, behind-the-scenes veterinary facility for marine wildlife rehabilitation and resident animal medical care is only one of three in the Pacific Northwest. Providing care for injured and sick marine animals is vital to a coast where ship, boat and beach traffic is increasing exponentially as people realize coming to the Central Oregon Coast is both affordable and adventurous.

Lewis and I talk about how education is the cornerstone to conservation and getting youth to understand the threats not just to our area of the Pacific Ocean, but to all oceans due to warming, acidification and loss of habitat and species.

One recent presentation of the American Cetacean Society-Oregon Chapter echoes Lewis’s belief how the aquarium incubates an interest in science and conservation among young visitors.

“My belief is that every person getting out of high school and the community college be able to stand before any city council or board of commissioners and communicate why preserving these forests and rivers are vital goals to protect wetlands, and our oceans,” said Paul Engelmeyer, The Wetlands Conservancy Coastal Land Steward and Conservationist at Audubon Society of Portland.

For Lewis, more is better. She wants outreach to be expanded, as the aquarium currently has a van with an inflatable, true-to-scale whale and a staff member traveling to outlying communities to present marine facts and science.

Sleepover with the sharks | Georgia aquarium, Sleepover, Aquarium

CEO with a history

Lewis has worked in several capacities at the aquarium, beginning in 1998. As the backhoe is digging up earth, she is transfixed momentarily. “It’s like updating your house,” she says while observing stumps being ripped up. “It’s like remodeling your old home where all the marks the kids have made get covered up.”

She has worn a number of hats: planning events, marketing, crisis communications, business development, director of marketing and then, in 2010, she became the CEO. That’s significant institutional memory of 28 years of the aquarium’s existence. “I am pretty blessed to be in this industry … one where I get to give back. We really make a difference in people’s lives.”

She’s 52 and talks about how she is asked by many groups to talk about her “amazing life” and “profession representing women.”

She’s quick to poo-poo the “unique” biography, but she realizes the aquarium/zoo field is quickly being dominated by female professionals, volunteers and staff.

She also honors coworkers and board members associated with this landmark. Did I say volunteers? That’s more than 400 aquarium volunteers ranging in age from 15 to 90.

All volunteers have been in limbo from doing their magic at the aquarium since COVID-19 lockdown. More than 80 percent of staff has been furloughed, though still paid through a Paycheck Protection Program loan.

She’s jazzed about even the smallest details — like a new backlit glass design for the front entrance — showing me a rendition of the aquamarine glass sculpture from Bullseye Glass Company out of Portland. “It represents beach glass.”

Total person, total experience

Her emphasis is on “enhanced total experience” for the more than 500,000 annual visitors.

It’s a simple formula — a family drives in from the Valley with the kids; they have this amazing view of Yaquina Bay and the bridge; then they come upon this inviting and lush entrance way and path; and they leave all their worries in the car.

More ADA-accessible walkways and paths are also part of the design improvements.

All those details add up to a 39-acre wonderland, with a coastal forest landscape design, a new and improved great hall with a jellyfish exhibit and articulated whale skeleton; a modernized café through new furnishings and facelift; and a playground that includes more climbing structures, an eagle’s nest and better interpretative signage.

“In our zoo and aquarium industry, we are all about getting kids outside and off their phones,” she emphasizes.

For the two or three hours a family might spend at the aquarium, proverbial lightbulbs go off in young people’s minds. Families share knowledge in an unstructured but intentional space. Newport and surrounding locations realize a huge economic boost — an annual economic impact of over $100 million.

The woman at the helm, Carrie Lewis, who was raised in Maui and came on board to help with crisis communication when Keiko was at the aquarium has been CEO for a decade.

“If I inspire one youth to think about going into the zoo or aquarium industry, I would be happy.”

Keiko Orca, Oregon Coast Aquarium Pat Hathaway© | Keiko, Ore… | Flickr

Killer Whale Problems

A simple answer to a tough question: What is one big negative lesson you have learned during your tenure? “The decision to house a large cetacean at the aquarium.”

Those were the “Free Willy days,” and while there was a movie, and lots of press, Lewis said it was “not a positive move.” She rolled her eyes and moved onto the next questions.

It doesn’t take a marine biologist to understand capturing and then moving a huge apex carnivore like a killer whale is highly stressful on the individual orca and those in the pod from which it was removed. Add to that the international protests against aquariums like Sea World for putting an intelligent and social mammal like a killer whale into the equivalent of a bathtub does not make for a positive marketing model.

The aquarium built the tank for Keiko; the orca was housed in Newport from January 7, 1996 until September 9, 1998, when he was eventually shipped to Vestmannaeyjar, Iceland.

The largest exhibit is “Passages of the Deep,” in Keiko’s former tank, and features a walk-through acrylic tube surrounded by deep water marine animals such as sharks, rays and rockfish.

Orford Reef displays rockfish and other smaller Pacific-Northwest fish. Halibut Flats is all about halibut, ling cod, small rays and other large fish. The Open Sea exhibit is the last section in the tunnel, holding sharks including seven-gills, as well as rays, mackerel, anchovy and salmon.

The aquarium hosts sleepover events in the tube.

Oregon Coast Aquarium asks for support during closure | KVAL

Growing up on a Pacific island

Lewis and I talk about her upbringing in Hawaii: her father who was a conservationist who went to developing countries to assist with setting up garbage/waste-to-energy renewable projects. Her stepfather was a lawyer.

Hawaii’s Saint Anthony was her high school alma mater. She attended and graduated from St. Mary’s College of California in Moraga. She liked the small campus, as she majored in communications. She thought she might go into conservation writing. One year back in Hawaii, then four years in Palm Springs, one year living in Seattle.

“I fell in love with the beauty and bounty of the Pacific Northwest. The mountains, the water, and the mentality of the people — I just loved it all.”

How she ended up in Newport is attributed to her mother who had a house here. She took Lewis to this “little aquarium.” And, viola, there was an opening in the marketing department.

Keiko: The Untold Story - Wikipedia

Stories from old connect to the future

In her book, The Kid from Valsetz, about Don Davis, first city manager of Newport, Deborah Trusty credits Davis with a large legacy in our area — arts and sciences.

“When Don and I talked about the aquarium, I noticed that even he was a bit astonished that the plan had actually come to fruition,” Trusty writes. “As the city worked through this project, Don said he experienced some of the most extensive and far-flung collaborations in his career.”

Carrie Lewis ramifies the collaborative process by pointing out the facility’s large number of benefactors and the diverse membership base — more than 7,000 household members. There’s the Rockfish Society. And the foundation support, including the Siletz Tribe, Oregon Foundation, Meyer Trust. “Every museum, aquarium and zoo is struggling in this financial climate.“

Collaboration and a vision toward the future through deep research on many aspects of the aquarium are what Carrie Lewis emphasizes. “Our aquarium has been voted in the Top 10 consistently by USA Today.”

It’s all in the details

Little things count like how signage might be improved — deciding upon static designs in some parts of the facility versus digital signs in other areas.

Lewis is proud of including new features such as “sensory inclusion” areas where the aquarium addresses the sensory needs of children and adults with autism and other developmental disabilities. Weighted blankets, quiet spaces and sound-reducing headphones are just a few of the new accommodations.

She’s aware expanding exhibits and activity areas — not increasing the site’s footprint — can require more staffing. Currently, there are 80 full-time staff as well as a cadre of part-time workers, interns, practicum students at OCCC and volunteers.

She explains the aquarium is contracting with a Canadian firm to redesign the playground. The original (1990) Portland landscape designer — Walker/Macy Landscape Architects — is on board for the Five Phase upgrades.

Right now, Lewis thinks long and hard about updating the three-year strategic plan which was undertaken in 2015. They were operating under a basic business plan whose impetus was “to get out of debt.” A Pennsylvania firm that advises zoos helped identify strategic and financial goals, as well as messaging, conservation and communication goals.

Soon afterward, Lewis spearheaded a feasibility study to increase visitor experience and more educational programming. Again, an expert company — this time out of Houston — helped with the feasibility study.

Lewis is proud that “even when we were in financial straits, we did not go to the state for help.”

Carrie Lewis is a case study of a woman in a significant leadership role demonstrating sustainability and success. She talked to groups about the obstacles they could face and how to overcome them. There are 27 accredited aquariums in the US, and Lewis points out that her time in the industry has seen more young women and men getting into the profession. This was before the COVID-19 lockdown, which has realized thus far $3 million loss in revenues.

Her confidence in the aquarium weathering the lockdown and huge loss of visitors and revenue bespeaks her years in the trenches.

“We’re trying to get through this together because when we re-open, and I believe that we will, it’s going to look very different. The landscape in our community, in our state, in our country is going to be very different,” Lewis said. “But the aquarium will get through this. We’ve had an incredible amount of support from people all over the world that believe in what we do and want to see our animals healthy and happy and taken care of.”

One of the more recent statements by Aquarium Communications Director Julie Woodward speaks to both the dire results of the pandemic closure and the work that has had to continue:

“We are struggling as are many non-profits. We have no revenue coming in as the majority of our revenue comes from ticket sales,” Woodward said in a May 18 news release. “Unlike most other non-profits, we still have to care and feed our 15,000+ animals each and every day. We are still looking for support.”

Lewis took over as president and CEO from Gary Gamer September 2010. The outgoing CEO’s statements reflect the confidence he had in her abilities.

“Working at the aquarium has been an incredible experience,” Gamer said. “Leading the staff has been an honor. They and the legion of volunteers working alongside them are very committed to the well-being of our ocean and the life within it. I’m confident the Oregon Coast Aquarium will remain a great place to visit in Pacific Northwest.”

Oregon Coast Aquarium unveils $18m expansion plans | blooloop

Note: From Paul’s column, Deep Dive, Oregon Coast Today, with permission.

Paul Kirk Haeder has covered police, environment, planning and zoning, county and city politics, as well as working in true small town/ community journalism in Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Mexico and beyond. He's worked in prisons, gang-influenced programs, universities, colleges, alternative high schools, language schools, and PK12 distrcits. He organized part-time faulty. His book, Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber (2016), looks at 10 years of his writing at Dissident Voice. Read his musings at LA Progressive. He blogs from Waldport, Oregon. Read his short story collection, Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam now out, published by Cirque Journal. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.