Kenny Alexopoulos Leads Oklahoma Aquarium

Contributing Editor

NEW LEADER: Kenny Alexopoulos was named chief operating officer of the Oklahoma Aquarium in May. Alexopoulos has been with the aquarium since 2000. He takes the reins as the fourth COO in the organization’s history.

GTR Newspapers photo

Editor’s Note: The Oklahoma Aquarium, including its newly-appointed Chief Operating Officer Kenny Alexopoulos, is one of Greater Tulsa Reporter’s “10 to Watch in Greater Tulsa 2018,” as announced in its January 2018 issue.

The Oklahoma Aquarium recently celebrated its 15-year anniversary and continues to see success with a steady annual visitor count of over a quarter million and regular exhibit openings. In March of last year, Sea Turtle Island opened, with aquarium staff currently preparing to open the Polynesian Reef in September.

Leading the charge is Kenny Alexopoulos, who was named chief operating officer in May. He has been with the Oklahoma Aquarium since 2000.

Alexopoulos’s assignment when he first came on board was to design and build the aquarium’s fish quarantine facility. Among the many photos hanging in his office is one of him working with the aquarium’s incubating penguin eggs.

Alexopoulos holds a dual degree in marine biology and marine fisheries from Texas A&M University, with a specialization in aquaculture and fish disease.

Alexopoulos spent his early professional years working in fish conservation in Alaska as a fisheries observer for National Marine Fisheries Service, monitoring the health and supply of fish in order to set the annual fishing season. He also spent time working in an environmental lab before getting his start in the aquarium industry, working with water quality at Moody Gardens in Galveston, Texas.

He, later, moved onto the Oklahoma Aquarium and has held various roles since starting with the organization, including lead biologist and deputy director. He was named in May, after the departure of Teri Bowers last year. Alexopoulos is the aquarium’s fourth .

Alexopoulos was drawn to the aquarium industry for a number of reasons, but besides the obvious connection to his fields of study, namely biology and water quality, aquariums also appealed to him for other, maybe less obvious, reasons.
For one, there’s the artistic element.

In order to keep costs low, the aquarium staff designs and builds all of its exhibits, Alexopoulos says.

When a new exhibit is in the works, Alexopoulos creates a small-scale replica, complete with rocks, corals and any other elements that will be included in the exhibit. Alexopoulos has gained so much experience in designing exhibits that he and his partner often consult on exhibit designs at aquariums around the country and the world, including recently for the Israel Aquarium in Jerusalem, Israel.

Alexopoulos is also responsible for many murals inside the aquarium as well as the shark sculpture that sits at the front entrance of the aquarium.

Secondly, the aquarium’s bull shark exhibit offers staff an opportunity for adventure and to be a part of something unique, Alexopoulos says.

The Oklahoma Aquarium stands alone as the only aquarium in the country with a bull shark collection, he continues. It also holds the designation as having the largest bull shark collection in the world. For these reasons, the aquarium often receives inquiries from and works with organizations around the world. For example, the aquarium uses its bull sharks to conduct bite testing, information that is sent to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in order to help create more shark resistant tethers that are used in tsunami early warning detection.

Up next for the Oklahoma Aquarium is the opening of its Polynesian Reef, which will be the aquarium’s second largest exhibit.

“With this exhibit, we wanted to create a destination, Polynesian feel, with tiki poles, bamboo, a volcano,” says Alexopoulos. “The exhibit will feature 75 different species and over 600 tropical fish.”

The exhibit will be home to zebra sharks that were hatched at the Oklahoma Aquarium in November, a humphead wrasse that can reach up to 400 pounds, and a rusted steel hull of a sunken ship that will be home to a giant moray eel.

The exhibit will also celebrate the reef habitat and highlight their importance to the health of the oceans and the planet as a whole, Alexopoulos says. Corals thrive in shallow water where enough sunlight can reach their polyps to catch energy from the sun. Since the 1980s, increased water temperature has caused many corals to bleach or become unhealthy, but everyone can make a difference and help protect important reef systems.

Since Sea Turtle Island opened last year, it has become the aquarium’s second most popular exhibit—after the bull sharks, Alexopoulos says. “I think our Polynesian exhibit will rival Sea Turtle Island in popularity.”

About six months after Polynesian Reef opens, Alexopoulos plans to get under way with the creation of a larger, more interactive exhibit area for the aquarium’s giant pacific octopus. Alexopoulos also hopes to possibly add a second octopus to the exhibit due to the species’ anti-social tendencies, therefore providing each octopus time for isolation.

As the Oklahoma Aquarium moves forward, its future looks bright. Yet, Alexopoulos is hopeful that visitors view the venue as more than simply a place to be entertained but to be educated.

“The Oklahoma Aquarium provides conservation education and exposes the public to environments that they may never see. Hopefully, that inspires them to get involved to help with conservation of our natural resources that are in such strain.”

Updated 08-16-2018

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