Sunday, July 14, 2024

Bringing Animals to Light

Lighting for aquaria and zoos

Patrick Gallegos, Gallegos Lighting

[dropcap color=”#888″ type=”square”]I[/dropcap]n the last five years, there has been a new boom in the design and creation of experiential projects that focus on wet, winged, and terrestrial critters. Just in our firm in that period, we have developed lighting designs for five different zoos and aquaria. Other prominent projects that have opened or been announced in that period are Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, Disney’s expansion of Animal Kingdom with the Avatar land, as well as continued development of the various SeaWorld properties.

This development results from three primary factors.

First is the growing concern about threats to the animal world that affect its very survival.

Second is the continued fascination of people with the creatures of the world and their desire to to see and interact with them in naturalistic environments, perhaps a reflection of a longing for the contact people once had with the animal world which has been mostly lost in an increasing urbanization worldwide, or just the desire to see the amazing diversity of life in places most people will never go.

Third is the desire for developers to use the above interests and fascinations to make animal experiences a cornerstone of their developments, bringing the best of experiential design to the presentation of incredible diversity of animal life on the planet.

The forms created to present these environments requires that they address the function of the space. This is a complex intermingling of often competing goals: civic pride, monumental architecture, education of the visitor, research, fundraising, energy conservation, and – primarily – animal welfare.



As with all experiential environments, lighting is a critical component in the presentation of the habitats, exhibits, and environs of the animal world, but it often is directly critical to the health and well-being of the residents of these projects. The lighting design must tip-toe through the various needs of the environment and find a means of creating not merely an engineering solution but work to create an experience.

In the best of circumstances, the lighting designer joins a team that includes an architect, an exhibit designer (often multiple), an owner – usually wearing two hats: one of curator and one of promoter – and a myriad of other specialists, from life support systems engineers to highly specialized curators, each with their opinion of what constitutes the “best” lighting.

The form of the buildings is the first thing that the visitor sees – from his/her drive to work, from the school bus, from the hotel across the water. It works in the day sculpted by the sun, but at night it needs to be sculpted by the designer to impress, and more importantly to draw in. What works in one environment may be totally different than another. In a cityscape, buildings compete with the busy-ness of the urban landscape. In another setting such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the building needs to blend with a very low-key, historical and naturalistic sensibility. But in either case, there must be that draw that entices and gives a glimpse of the mysteries to unfold within. For zoos, the draw is usually the entry followed by long transitions to indoor and outdoor habitats.

Lighting creates a transition and gives direction: Where do I go? Come see this sparkling preview tank! Exhibit path starts here! Nighttime fundraising and special events are frequent and popular. Have you allowed for casual hors d’ouevres? Black-tie sit-down dinner? Educational slideshow? Professional mixer? All of these events can easily be part of the program for the same week.

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Aquaria typically are not about only fish. They seek to explain the complex interrelationship of plants and animals. Have you dealt with the UV needs of your reptiles? The blast of light needed to keep the coral alive? The diurnal cycle needs of the diving birds? How lighting affects the mating habits of the higher animals (yes, seriously!)?

In zoos, historically, when the sun goes down the visitors disappear and all lights are out. But with interest for expansion of zoos in notoriously hot areas like the Middle East, owners and animal experts are looking at means of ‘time shifting’ animal schedules to maximize the time they are active in the evening and early night hours to allow for evening and nighttime safaris or even nighttime safari drives that correspond to when locals actually venture out. This opens up more opportunities for sensitive and impactful lighting in the creation of moonlight scenarios that are respectful of animal needs as well as creating magical vistas.

Maintenance – Ignore this one and risk the ire of the facility managers. It won’t come a surprise that the people running these facilities are extremely aware and sensitive to the global concerns about energy and ecology and sustainability. Building-wide lighting management is a must for so many reasons it shouldn’t be questioned.

In aquariums, water is notorious for sucking up wavelengths and lumen energy. Simulating sunlight requires strong lights with careful attention to color temperature. Color temperature is critical, not so much for animal needs as it is for the appearance of natural light. Real daylighting measured has a much higher Kelvin temperature, but 5500° to 6000° looks like daylight through water; higher Kelvin begins to read as overly blue to the eye.

Magic – Go beyond the engineering tables; they are lighting 101. You are way beyond that. Make lobbies shimmer. Allow the denizens of the deep to appear out of the black depths. Change your daytime tank into a magical moonlit landscape. The critters of aquaria can be stranger than anything created for the bars on a planet far-far away. Don’t be afraid of shadows – they add to both the romance and the mystery. Create a lighting place for them to live and watch the wonder in the eyes of a nine-year-old… or a thirty-nine-year-old… or an eighty-nine-year-old.

Did you remember to have fun? If not, you wasted at least three years of your life. Create an experience for the users of your aquarium, and create one for yourself along the path in getting there. • • •

PatGallegos2Patrick Gallegos is Principal of Gallegos Lighting Design ( with offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco. His firm works in multiple venues, but finds deep satisfaction working in the animal realms. Aquarium and zoo related projects include: Long Beach Aquarium of the Pacific, the National Aquarium of Taiwan, the Colorado Aquarium, The Florida Aquarium, Texas State Aquarium – Phases 1 and 2, California Science Center: World of Ecology, Gifu Aquarium (Japan), Monterey Bay Aquarium Lobby, Philadelphia Zoo Tiger Exhibit, Toledo Aquarium, Nashville Zoo Entry, New Doha Zoo – Qatar, Nanchand Aquarium, Polar Ocean World Shanghai. He is a Past President of the Themed Entertainment Association.


Joe Kleiman
Joe Kleiman
Raised in San Diego on theme parks, zoos, and IMAX films, InPark's Senior Correspondent Joe Kleiman would expand his childhood loves into two decades as a projectionist and theater director within the giant screen industry. In addition to his work in commercial and museum operations, Joe has volunteered his time to animal husbandry at leading facilities in California and Texas and has played a leading management role for a number of performing arts companies. Joe previously served as News Editor and has remained a contributing author to InPark Magazine since 2011. HIs writing has also appeared in Sound & Communications, LF Examiner, Jim Hill Media, The Planetarian, Behind the Thrills, and MiceChat His blog, takes an unconventional look at the attractions industry. Follow on twitter @ThemesRenewed Joe lives in Sacramento, California with his wife, dog, and a ghost.

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