The Mississippi Aquarium: A New Jewel on the Mississippi Gulf Coast

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Clear skies appear after emerging from tropical rain just north of Gulfport

How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. 

The rain sure reminded me of Katrina; it was like driving through a car wash. Fifteen years after the monster hurricane devastated the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I sloshed my way South to celebrate another milestone in its recovery, the new Mississippi Aquarium in Gulfport. I marveled at how much things have changed along Highway 49. Traffic lights have multiplied like rabbits and many of the medians have been cleared (helps with falling trees during hurricanes.) Civilization has moved slightly north since Katrina, too. The city of Wiggins’ population has grown. All the area along and north of Interstate 10 seems busier. There are still plenty of empty lots South of the railroad tracks – the line of demarcation for the storm surge in many places. As my son (my copilot for the trip) and I sat at a traffic light in Gulfport, I pictured all the destruction I had witnessed a decade and a half ago. I opened them again to see a green light and a new Coast.

My first cartoon after Katrina slammed the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Courtesy of the Clarion Ledger.

One of the cartoons I did after Katrina showed the Gulf Coast running a marathon, not a sprint. When I drew it, toilets wouldn’t flush, debris lined the Coast and lives remained in tatters. Volunteers were swarming in, helping pick all the other agencies and government entities whose plans had been washed out into the Mississippi Sound. I knew the Coast would come back.  But what would it look like?

On Friday, I got my answer.

Casinos are now on land (well, their barges were on lang after the storm but not on purpose), restaurants and businesses have come back. Roads and bridges have been repaired. Like I said, many homes, businesses and churches now are north of the railroad tracks. But fancy homes are now filling the long-empty lots. Even the Gulfport Library, which sat as a washed-out husk of a building for over a decade, is repaired.  And right next to it, near where Highways 49 and 90 run into each other, sits The Mississippi Aquarium.

The $100 million Mississippi Aquarium (which broke ground in May of 2018 and is partially funded with BP oil-spill recovery money) contains one-million gallons of both salt and fresh water and sits on 5.8 acres — 10 different lots were cobbled together to make the site. According to their website, it contains “over 80,000 square feet of exhibits and connected by landscaped walkways with plantings representing all seven Physiographic Regions of Mississippi.” (Although I did not see any Kudzu).

My son touches an epaulette shark in the touch tank.

So is it good? Yes. It is very good. My 13-year-old, who loves all things aquariums, enjoyed it as much as the ones in New Orleans, Atlanta and Gatlinburg. We were greeted by alligators, catfish, sharks, cownose rays and 200 other types of aquatic species. There were also numerous friendly and relieved staff members who are just thankful the opening day has arrived.

It is estimated that, as soon as the world gets back to some degree of post-COVID normalcy, it will generate $360 million a year in revenue for the businesses in the Gulfport area. Frankly, it’s a win for the whole Mississippi Gulf Coast.

My son and I listened as the politicians praised the new attraction. Gulfport Mayor Billy Hewes became emotional when he was speaking about it. What mayor wouldn’t? It’s a shining new piece to the recovering Gulf Coast puzzle that will bring visitors and dollars to his city for years to come. Still, I thought about Katrina and the damage it had caused. I looked up at the facility and wondered if it was high enough to survive the next big storm surge that would roar ashore. My guess is that it will.

As we headed home, we drove past the spot where Jim Cantore stood in front of the Treasure Bay Casino pirate ship before the storm and ominously warned us to look around because things wouldn’t look the same again.

Cantore was right. They don’t look the same. But they look better than they did immediately after the storm and are getting better by the day. When I was helping clean off a lot in Waveland after the storm, I asked a fellow coworker how the Coast would ever recover. He smiled, pointed at the debris around us and said, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”

The Mississippi Aquarium, a new jewel on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, is a major bite of that elephant.

A crocodile greets you as you enter The Mississippi Aquarium. Alligators are on the other side of the walkway.

The entrance to the main Mississippi Aquarium tank.

Riding up the escalator to the top of the Aquatic Wonders exhibit.

Cownose rays swim by on the top floor of the Aquatic Wonders exhibit.

Epaulette sharks chill in the touch tank. Unlike most sharks, they don’t have to move to be able to breathe.

Next level of the Aquatic Wonders exhibit features a plexiglas tunnel so you can get up and close to the fish (sharks included.)

The Mississippi Aquarium entertains and educates.

SHARK!

A sand tiger shark meanders by the large viewing window.

A cownose ray says hello.

The Goliath grouper can grow up to 1,000 lbs.

There is as much outside as inside at The Mississippi Aquarium. The dolphins, aviary and other tanks are outside.

Former First Lady Deborah Bryant checks out a penguin.

The Mississippi Aquarium has two juvenile alligators, Bonnie and Clyde. This is Bonnie.

Expected to generate $360 million in revenue for the area around Gulfport, The Mississippi Aquarium is expected to be an economic engine for years to come.