CEO Bob Davidson Is Preparing for a Sea Change at the Seattle Aquarium

Bob Davidson is overseeing one of the most dramatic development projects to happen in Seattle in years
WATERFRONT WONDERS. President and CEO Bob Davidson is overseeing a major expansion of the Seattle Aquarium that will offer the public a waterfront portal into the wonders of the deep sea.

This story appears in the August 2019 issue. Click here for a free subscription.

After more than 17 years as president and chief executive officer of the Seattle Aquarium, Bob Davidson still experiences a sense of wonder and discovery during his daily walks through the exhibits, whether he’s observing the giant Pacific octopus or exploring the cowfish and potbellied seahorses. Things have changed a lot since Davidson took the helm. In 2007 the aquarium embarked on a major expansion, and then in 2010 it separated from the city of Seattle and became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The biggest change, though, is yet to come: a bold, innovative Ocean Pavilion adjacent to the city’s future Overlook Walk that will include 48,000 square feet of public exhibits and meeting space as well as a 350,000-gallon shark tank that the public can observe without actually visiting the aquarium. The ambitious project also will help brand the region as a global leader in marine conservation efforts when it opens in 2023. “I tell people I intend to cut the ribbon on the Ocean Pavilion, but I have to be alive to do it,” Davidson jokes.

The most often asked question at the front desk when people come in is, “Where are the sharks?”

One of my predecessors came in and said there that there are too many signs. It just clutters up the place. They didn’t all disappear, but many of them did and they were replaced by the volunteer interpretive program. We have over 1,000 active volunteers and an unusually large interpretive and education department and staff.

Seattle, because of the Gates Foundation and the Hutch and the UW and all kinds of things, has become a center for global health. We also have the ingredients for becoming a bigger center of ocean health, without which there won’t be any global health.

We have people who come through here every day, especially students, and a lot of them have never been to the beach. Their understanding of the dynamics of ocean health and how humans relate to that are a big part of the purpose and role of this aquarium.

Years ago, zoos and aquariums were mostly featuring oddities. People didn’t understand the fragility of the oceans, and the notion was there’s an infinite supply of live animals to display.

When the Seattle Aquarium opened in 1977, it was focused on the waters of Washington. That was innovative at the time. Many aquariums around the world paid no attention to local waters. They focused on the most colorful or biggest fish. Two-thirds of this aquarium will always be focused on Washington waters.

What we’ve learned is that people respect what we’re trying to do, and we have the know-how to bring together people from around the world on topics related to the health of the ocean. We’ve been doing conferences every other year for 30 years related to sea otters, and experts come from all over the world and meet right here. We’ve done the same thing with the octopus.

Everything that the otters eat is all sustainable, restaurant-quality seafood.

We all got a little skeptical about deadlines when Bertha was stuck for two years. Skeptical is a nice way to put it.

There are two aspects for this type of project. One is the bones of the building, and you need an architect for that. And the other is the exhibits. What are the stories that you’re telling? How do you tell them and how is it done in a way that’s authentic to what we aspire to be?

There are aquariums all over the world and we’re in Seattle. We don’t want just another aquarium. This will be transformative, not only for the aquarium and how people perceive it, but for the city.

The architect we selected said one of the firms [that we interviewed] for this project is more predictable, and you’ll get a great product, but it won’t be cutting-edge. He said he thought he had a sense that we wanted something different and there’s some risk involved, and that’s how we chose a firm called Thinc out of New York.

The most evident risk is that your designer goes off an edge and designs something that’s not practical to operate. And so, your staff is put in a position of having to manage all these aspects of an aquarium, which must be to a certain standard or animals will die.

Another type of risk is people get so wrapped up in innovation that they miss the basic points of our mission.

When I was in the printing business, I was getting advice on developing strategy for the future of our company and somebody who’d been in the business a long time said, “Well I think what you’ll find is that you’re not going to invent something that’s brand new. What you’ll find are things you’re already doing that you want to do more of and better.” That’s what we’re thinking about.

We’ve got to think ahead for 30 years. This is a 30-year plan.

So, we’re giving people a sneak peek for free. Why sharks? The sharks are the biggest creatures featured in the Coral Exhibit.

If you can’t be happy in this job, you can’t be happy anywhere. The energy, particularly from kids, and the joy and curiosity, and you’re connected to something that’s involved in the future of the Earth. I’ve never really had a bad job. But this is different.

Ninety percent of what people learn in a lifetime, they don’t get in a classroom. They get it in places like this.

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