Hailing from Houston, Kenny Alexopoulos graduated from Texas A&M University in 1996 with a dual degree in marine biology and marine fisheries. Before finding his calling in aquarium science, he worked various jobs – on fishing boats in Alaska; collecting data for National Marine Fisheries; hatching king penguin eggs for the Moody Gardens Aquarium on Galveston Island, among others. Alexopoulos has been with the Oklahoma Aquarium since June of 2000, three years before the attraction opened to the public. He and his team were crucial in the research and design phase of the aquarium’s construction. We caught up with Alexopoulos and got his thoughts on …
… his long tenure
with the aquarium.
Most of my original team is still with the aquarium and we have become like a family. It’s hard to leave that type of environment. Also, I feel great ownership towards the aquarium since all of the exhibits were built and designed in-house by the staff and myself. This aspect is very unique for an aquarium of our size and has become a labor of love.
… a day in the life.
I usually start my day walking through the facility to make sure everything is in order, clean, and the exhibits and their inhabitants are healthy and well maintained. I then look at any new visitor reviews to get insight on what we are successful with and what we need to improve on. Due to the vast array of goings-on at an aquarium, every day can be drastically different from the next. I may be designing a new exhibit, which is an extensive process that includes concept, filtration and habitat design. Sometimes there are animal issues that come up that need my input – this is especially true with the sharks. I attend multiple manager’s meetings, including with City of Jenks management. I often work on new and existing revenue generating sources.
… his favorites at the aquarium.
Our new Polynesian Reef exhibit might be my favorite [exhibit]. The diversity of fish and the recreation of a natural reef maybe the best I’ve seen. My favorite animal at our aquarium is, of course, the bull shark; we have one of the only (and the largest) collection of bull sharks in the world.
… proudest moments.
The first time we successfully collected bull sharks from the wild; the first day we fired up the 400,000-gallon shark filtration system that we designed and built; and the completion of the bull shark statue.
… what’s on the horizon.
We are building a huge clownfish exhibit and a massive jellyfish exhibit in our Amazing Invertebrates gallery – it will open summer of 2021. In 2022, we plan on opening a jellyfish touch exhibit. Some of our future hopes are to construct a very large stingray lagoon to replace our smaller one, and create an immersive ‘Walk through the Woods’ experience in our Aquatic Oklahoma gallery by adding trees and boulders. And our grandest dream is to create a living indoor water park, where the main feature is a snorkeling lagoon that allows guests to snorkel with tropical fish and stingrays.
… his artistic talents.
It is very unusual for an aquarium of our size to be almost completely designed and constructed in-house. This approach saved millions of dollars and has produced a staff with extensive experience and skills. I am proud to lead such a team, and always look forward to our next project. I have developed this knowledge out of necessity due to a challenging budget at the time of the aquarium’s construction. It is this experience that allows us to continue to add new and exciting exhibits for pennies on the dollar.
There is definitely a need for an artistic eye when designing new exhibits. I had always been somewhat artistic as a child, but it wasn’t until I was introduced to this field did I get so inspired to create. Along with exhibit design, I have painted several murals throughout the aquarium and even sculpted the bull shark statue in the entrance of the aquarium. This was probably my most rewarding creation, and it’s very special to me because there is a message to my son carved into it. It sums up my one piece of advice to him: “Do what you love, son.”
Photo by Stephanie Phillips