Coastal culture in a mile-high city

New aquarium helps Denver broaden its urban renaissance.

Legend has it that pools of salt water still hide in the nooks and crannies of the great Rocky Mountains, a vestige of when Denver was on the ocean bottom 65 million years ago.

Within those pools of salt water lurk oysters, long a symbol of culture and wealth.

Recently, though, civic boosters haven't been looking in the remote Rockies for signs of status. They have made a different kind of bid to bring salt water - and culture - to this mile-high city.

After much fanfare - including a contest to name three otters now known as Slater, Blue, and Gunnison - the $93 million Ocean Journey aquarium will open here June 21.

To many Denver residents, it's an important addition that will help give their city a truly world-class rsum. While Denver has long been known as the gateway to Colorado's outdoor paradise, its nickname - the Queen City of the Plains - has seemed only to underscore the perception that New York City and Los Angeles are king.

Sure, the city has gotten through tough times - an oil bust in the 1980s was a hammer blow to civic pride. A decade later, though, it established itself as a technology hub as well as a prime vacation destination - and home to perhaps the most recognizable airport on the planet.

But one thing was still missing: a really good oceanfront.

"Now we have that," says Tom Noel, a professor of history at the University of Colorado at Denver.

"We're like the final gem," adds aquarium co-founder Judy Petersen-Fleming, noting that the downtown Denver area is bursting with shops, restaurants, and a new sports arena. "People always want what they don't have. I think people are dying to see the ocean."

With Ocean Journey, Denver joins a host of other cities - both landlocked and coastal - in opening aquariums for reasons of economics and culture.

Still, historians are cautious about putting Denver on par with other world-class cities just because it has brought in a little coastal culture. "I'm just not entirely convinced that the snobs and snooty people in New York are going to care," says Patricia Limerick, a history professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder and chair of The Center of the American West.

Yet for many people in Denver, the opening of Ocean Journey will be a special event. It came about largely because of the determination of Ms. Petersen-Fleming and her husband, Bill Fleming.

Since 1990, when the couple drew up the first plans for the new aquarium on a napkin in a sushi bar in Japan, the Flemings have worked tirelessly to make the aquarium a reality.

After traveling the world as aquarium consultants, the two settled down in Judy's home state of Colorado and began tapping corporations and family connections for money. Soon, the effort snowballed.

"Never take the first five noes for an answer," advises Petersen-Fleming.

As a native Coloradan, Petersen-Fleming says she has long been fascinated by the ocean. "I couldn't believe there was a giant body of water out there."

She adds that an aquarium takes on a unique, educational role in a landlocked state. "Some of these kids will be the next marine biologists," she says.

Ocean Journey contains two main exhibits. One traces the path of the Colorado River from the Rockies to the Sea of Cortez. Visitors start out viewing green and brown river fish such as trout, and end up off the Mexican coast amid blue and gold angelfish and snappers. Throughout the exhibit, water on the ground and in overhead fish tanks is meant to simulate the feel of walking in a river.

The Colorado River exhibit also includes a flash flood with stormy skies and 2,500 gallons of water that gush down a desert replica and spray onlookers. Once at the Sea of Cortez replica, arched acrylic gives viewers the feel of being underneath a crashing wave.

The other exhibit brings visitors from the beginnings of the Kampar River in Indonesia to its end in the South China Sea. Jungle trees, two Sumatran tigers, rainbow fish, and sharks help illustrate the ecosystem. All told, thousands of animals will wriggle, growl, and flip their way through Ocean Journey.

But don't expect to find any ancient sea life from the mysterious reaches of the Rocky Mountains.

Denver now has the real thing.

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