An Immersive Habitat and Visitor Experience

Seal and Sea Lion Exhibit

Seal and Sea Lion Exhibit

Smithsonian Institution National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute
Washington, DC

We renewed and expanded this popular exhibit to create a natural, sustainable habitat as well as an immersive visitor experience. The landscape evokes the animals’ coastal Pacific habitat. A winding path, is fully accessible for persons with disabilities and navigates the site’s dramatic grade changes to provide a variety of animal viewing opportunities.

In addition to the exhibit itself, we led the expansion and renovation of the building and systems that sustain the National Zoo’s seal and sea lion populations. The revitalized facility includes cutting-edge life support systems within multiple exhibit and holding pools that provide increased animal enrichment.

An Immersive Habitat and Visitor Experience
We tried to create a little piece of the West Coast. You might think you’re in Oregon.
A photo of zoo visitors watching a sea lion swim towards the surface from the underwater viewing area.

Close Encounters

We embedded windows into the sea lion pool structure to allow visitors to feel immersed with the animals in split-level and underwater viewing areas. The rock work in these areas encourages animal activity, enhancing the connection between visitors, the animals, and the environment.

A photo of the reworked American Trail, now a universally accessible path along the steep and loping site at the zoo.

Accessible to Everyone

We reworked the adjacent American Trail to create a universally accessible path along the steep and sloping site. We added over 300 linear feet to the trail to lower the grade to no more than 5%, creating an accessible path over an 80-foot elevation change.

A photo of people on a bridge looking into the water habitat for the seals.

State-of-the-Art Habitats

Two pools—300,000 gallons and 125,000 gallons—provide salt or fresh water and are supported by wave machines that provide animal enrichment. A new filtration system improves clarity while reducing water consumption by 75%, and adjustable shades protect the animals’ eyesight.

A photo of people walking the American Trail built along rock formation structures.

Updating Vital Infrastructure

We carefully expanded the 42-year-old life support systems building to enable a comprehensive systems retrofit while minimizing the facility’s apparent size. The building’s stepped form mimics the surrounding hillside, and its new cladding contributes to the exhibit’s Pacific Northwest vocabulary.

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