Aquatic life sparks respect for nature |

Aquatic life sparks respect for nature

Dan Bischoff, Of the Record staff

Cool air wafts across visitors’ faces as they step into a dark tunnel representing Utah waters.

They enter mountain streams where pristine cold water, fueled by snow pack, spawns aquatic life mainly trout. Further down the tunnel, the visitor is taken on a walking tour of the ecosystem as it changes from high-altitude streams on down to the Great Salt Lake, which includes viewing many rare species found in Utah’s wilderness. Further along, the exhibits offer glimpses of life in the immense ocean.

The effects of seeing endangered or threatened species lurking around in an aquarium can be far-reaching for many ages.

After Ethan Page and his third-grade class saw and learned about creatures such as spotted frogs, Boreal toads, June suckers, Woundfin minnows at The Living Planet Aquarium in Sandy, they came away with a fresh understanding of taking care of animals.

"We wouldn’t want to make them extinct or hurt them," Page said.

The education Page gained is a main reason why long-time Park City resident, Madlyn Runburg continues working at the Aquarium as the director of operations. She started with the Aquarium nearly four years ago when it was born. Runburg began her post-college days teaching school before she went into the business world.

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"It’s a perfect fit," Runburg said. "I still get to work with kids, it’s still teaching, just in a different venue."

The founder, Brent Andersen, was a marine biologist who fell in love with marine life and wanted to share his knowledge with people who didn’t live next to the ocean.

"He was able to develop a culture, a grassroots program run by scientists and teachers, it helps us stay focused on the heart of what it is. It started from the place of the heart," Rundberg said.

Three-fourths of the Earth is covered in water, "yet land-locked kids don’t get to see it," Runburg said about Andersen’s motivation to bring the Aquarium to Utah.

Because of Andersen, the focus has been on teaching and outreach programs for elementary students.

"We are an organization based on education. It’s the driving growth of our team, a testament of who we are," Runburg said.

That component was on full display during the Rainforest Rendezvous, an education program that shows periodically each day. Members of the Aquarium show off animals from rain forests so kids can get a glimpse of the wonder of nature. Kids laughed and sighed as caretakers brought out huge cockroaches, parrots, tarantulas and iguanas.

"Our goal is to reconnect with the world," Runburg said. "It’s a great experience as a family to see the relationships in nature and learn to be sensitive to animals. Everybody here understands and wants to bring that awareness to the community."

A few years ago, another Parkite, Matt Jacobsen, a diving instructor and former chef, noticed the billboards for the Aquarium and "had to be involved somehow," he said.

At first, he volunteered and is now the guest services manager.

"He has the perfect skill set for heading up guest services," Runburg said.

With his experience as a chef, Jacobsen knew how to be the face of the organization, the first and last impression visitors would have, Runburg said.

"This organization has a great mission statement and I like being involved with like-minded people," Jacobsen said.

The Aquarium started with Andersen’s private dollars, but has expanded with the help of donations and Salt Lake City’s Zoo Arts and Parks tax. It has plans to expand further to show mostly aquatic animals from all over the world.

But, Runburg said the point isn’t just to offer a Utah version of Sea World. The point is to show ecosystems and develop an appreciation and an awareness to protect aquatic creatures. Runburg said it helps adults remember the sense of wonder they had as children. For children, it helps create a reference point or "a spark" that will go home with them.

"To touch a stingray or sea star provides a connection to a larger world," Runburg said. "The impact is when we can create something that carries into adulthood."

The Living Planet Aquarium is located at 725 E. 10600 South in Sandy, about 30 minutes from Kimball Junction. Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for seniors and students and $5 for children 3-12. Annual memberships are $15 for adults and $9 for each child. For more information, call (801) 495-4448 or log on to .