A sea change for aquarium

The organization has new name and new board — as well as a new ‘octopus palace’

cmsewell@idahostatesman.comMay 9, 2014 


    The members are: Paul E. Abbott, Idaho Power Co. senior fishery biologist; Jeannette Bowman, retired Idaho Power Co. analyst; Sandra Cavanaugh, consultant; David Fornander, biologist, educator; Michael Giltzow, retired; Dick Jordan, Timberline High School environmental science teacher; Paul Norman, Merrill Lynch financial analyst; Bobbie Patterson, retired Boise Convention and Visitors Bureau director; John Watts, Veritas Advisors partner; and Chris Walser, College of Idaho biology professor.


    Daylong festivities include tours, presentations, games, activities for children and a contest to name the octopus. The aquarium also will offer a 30 percent discount on membership and pass packages.

    Aquarium of Boise: 64 N. Cole Road, 375-1932

    Current hours, rates: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday through Thursday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Adults, $9; children 3 to 11, $6; children 2 and younger, free; seniors, students and military, $7.

    Rates, hours starting June 1: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily. Adults, $11; children 3 to 11, $6; children 2 and younger, free; seniors, students and military, $8.


    The Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce this week awarded Nancy Vannorsdel its Hall of Fame Award.

    Vannorsdel is the second recipient. The board selected her for "her sustained, positive contributions to the betterment of the chamber and support for its mission to advocate for economic well-being, regional development and quality of life."

    Vannorsdel is a past chairman of the board and president and CEO of the chamber. She is the only person to serve in both capacities.

    Prior to joining the chamber, she worked in banking for 30 years. When she retired in 1997, she was one of the highest-ranking female bank executives in the Northwest.

    The chamber will honor Vannorsdel at its 2014 Small Business of the Year & Chamber Excellence Awards Luncheon on Thursday, May 15, from noon to 1:30 p.m., at the Boise Centre. Online registration: boisechamber.org.

The aquarium's new directors, Nancy Vannorsdel and Joni Sullivan, have shed a lot of tears since they decided to take on repairing the business, which had suffered a string of legal and management problems.

"It has been one awful thing after another," Vannorsdel said.

When staff biologist Sheree McMullen released the octopus into its new home Thursday at the Idaho Aquarium - being renamed Aquarium of Boise - longtime friends Vannorsdel and Sullivan broke out in both tears and smiles.

"This is a real milestone," Sullivan said.

Vannorsdel was heartbroken when the aquarium's octopus died shortly after she came on board as director in October. When Vannorsdel learned from staff that the octopus had been housed in a tank that was too small and lacked "enrichment," she set about getting a new one built.

Raising the $15,000 and getting it built was the easy part. The hard part was waiting three months for the new tank's water to reach optimum conditions.

Finally, this week, the water's readings came in on the mark. The octopus is now stretching its tentacles in a larger home with a tunnel and other features to keep it occupied.

"We call it the octopus palace," Vannorsdel said.


On May 31, the aquarium will hold a grand opening to unveil its new name and to launch a $375,000 capital campaign to expand and remodel the facility. It also will add an "Exploratorium" - a learning center that will offer marine and environmental science programs for schools, as well as other learning opportunities.

"All of our programs during the school year, all of our field trips, all of our lesson plans, are integrated with Common Core," said Sandra Cavanaugh, a new board member and development director.

Some remodeling will get underway within the next couple of weeks, including improvements to the building's exterior and construction of a new aviary, said facilities manager Joseph McMullen. The aquarium has small bird and reptile displays.

Vannorsdel and Sullivan, chief executive officer and chief operating officer, respectively, took over the nonprofit aquarium in October after its former directors, Ammon Covino and Chris Conk, were charged and convicted in a Florida federal court of conspiring to bring illegally harvested spotted rays and lemon sharks to Boise for display at the aquarium.


Vannorsdel and Sullivan have had to repair or re-create nearly every aspect of the aquarium, from financial procedures to protocols for animal care.

They assembled a new board of directors comprising biologists, educators and community leaders. They brought in new employees and put together an army of 100 volunteers who conduct tours and assist with the animals.

Vannorsdel and Sullivan, who are not being paid, initially agreed to stay four months. They're now in their eighth month.

"We want to stay on until we feel ready to turn it over," Vannorsdel said.

Cavanaugh calls the pair of directors a "tour de force."

"They have single-handedly held the aquarium above water - no pun intended," said Cavanaugh.

Cynthia Sewell: 377-6428, Twitter: @CynthiaSewell

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