Milwaukie venture is first of its kind in the Portland area

by: COURTESY OF PORTLAND AQUARIUM - Brothers Vince (left) and Ammon Covino expect a big following once their Portland Aquarium in Milwaukie opens. The aquarium will be home to 2,500 species of sea life and wildlife.Ammon and Vince Covino, brothers from Boise, have big plans for the new Portland Aquarium, believed to be the first of its kind in the metropolitan area.

It’ll be 12,000 square feet of various sea life and mammal exhibits — exotic and Northwest native — and the brothers have the intention of opening an even larger, 30,000-gallon shark tank and seal exhibit, all tucked away among residential and commercial development on two acres at 16323 S.E. McLoughlin Blvd. in Milwaukie, the site of the former Black Angus Restaurant and Dolphin III nightclub.

A risky proposition? Not at all, says Vince Covino, whose research showed that the Portland area was the largest region in the United States without some kind of aquarium.

A risky location? Not even close, Covino adds, citing the easy, 20- to 30-minute access for Portland-area folks.

A risky attraction? Although it’s geared toward the 10-year-old audience, Covino says its appeal will be broad to include teenagers and adults alike.

All signs point to the Portland Aquarium being popular right away — a season-ticket holder opening takes place Monday, Dec. 10, followed by the planned grand opening Saturday, Dec. 15.

Covino says it’ll be hard to fit in everybody during the grand opening. Pre-sales of memberships — half-price at, ranging from $24.95 to $99.95 — have “exceeded our expectations,” he says, and the aquarium has drawn more than 19,000 “likes” on Facebook.

There’ll be blacktip and bamboo sharks, bat and sting and blue dot rays, moray and garden eels, octopuses (including a poisonous blue ring), sea horses and pipefish, jellyfish, reef fish, lionfish, cuttlefish, starfish and anemones, as well as river otters, puffins, a sulcata tortoise, a Burmese albino python, frogs, lizards and two large iguanas.

Not everything has arrived.

Compact exhibits

The Covino brothers’ fascination with marine life began with Ammon Covino building a salt-water pond in his front yard, and putting in about 100 species — eels, rays, fish, etc. — and feeding them. The neighbor kids wouldn’t leave, Vince Covino says, “we had to kick them off the porch at night.” That formed the idea of opening an aquarium geared for kids.

Last December, after some delays and setbacks, they opened the Idaho Aquarium in Boise, and planned expansion. Covino says the Idaho Aquarium attracts about 20,000 visitors each month, and he expects 40,000 visitors per month at the Portland Aquarium, especially after larger shark tank and seal exhibit additions.

In Portland, there’ll be 2,500 species, and 40 full-time employees, including 10 marine biologists, five biologists and two zoologists. Five large, 3,000-gallon salt water tanks provide circulation for exhibits and the Portland Aquarium has food prep and quarantine areas. Covino says measures have been taken to care for the wildlife and fish.

“It’s scaled-down (from Oregon Coast Aquarium), especially on land area, it’s a little bit more compact in exhibits,” says Mike Mahar, a zoologist and Portland native. “We are a little bit more diverse,” including activities for kids, such as a jungle gym in a rainforest room.

Mahar focuses on animal behavior. The rays and some other animals can be touched and fed. The river otters can be “mischievous,” and need to be kept busy.

For sea life, “we’re trying to replicate their natural environment as best we can. Give them ample space, proper nutrition, keep water clean. There are a lot of inter-species mixing, and there’s a fine science of what you can put together and what you can’t.”

Covino says the Portland Aquarium hasn’t partnered with a research institution, such as Oregon State University, or the Oregon Coast Aquarium or Oregon Zoo for conservation and education programs. But the Zoo folks have provided some guidance, and official partnerships could be made in the future.

For now, it’s been an effort led by the brothers and others working hard to make the “tentative” Dec. 15 opening.

“I live here,” Covino says. “I’m here 18 hours a day.”

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