Arts & Entertainment

Governor Chris Christie Opens Turtle Back Zoo Sea Lion Sound Exhibit With Essex County Executive Joe DiVincenzo

On Wednesday, April 10, Governor Chris Christie, along with his daughter Bridget, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, Sheriff Armando Fontoura, Senator Teresa Ruiz, Assemblyman Thomas P. Giblin, Essex County Freeholders and zoo benefactors, cut the ribbon to open the new Sea Lion Sound Exhibit and Stingray Touching Tank at Turtle Back Zoo. Credits: Cynthia Cumming

WEST ORANGE, NJ – On Wednesday, April 10, Governor Chris Christie, along with his daughter Bridget, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo, Sheriff Armando Fontoura, Senator Teresa RuizAssemblyman Thomas P. Giblin, Essex County Freeholders and zoo benefactors, cut the ribbon to open the new Sea Lion Sound Exhibit and Stingray Touch Tank at Turtle Back Zoo.

Sea Lion greeting zoo docent.  Credit: Carolyne Volpe Curley

The exhibit is a natural themed habitat and the largest in Turtle Back Zoo’s history, opened to coincide with the zoo’s Fiftieth Anniversary. The exhibit features an 82,000 gallon pool for the sea lions and a 1,600 gallon touch tank for stingrays. Visitors will be able to feed the stingrays for an additional $2 fee.

The Sea Lion Sound Exhibit.  Credit: Carolyne Volpe Curley

The exhibit is designed to resemble a West Coast ocean village, with the entrance resembling a boat dock and a weathered effect to the buildings. The exhibit also has a 500 square foot deck and 2,450 square foot room for small functions and events, as well as restroom facilities.

Clarke Caton Hintz Architecture Planning, Landscape Architecture from Trenton received the $277,449 contract to design the exhibit. Arco Construction Group of Elizabeth was awarded the $5.485 million dollars to construct the exhibit. A $1 surcharge will be added to regular Zoo admissions to offset the costs and raise $1.2 million from 2011 through 2014.

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Hundreds of community members, press, and officials were on hand for the newest exhibit opening at the Zoo.

Press conference outside of the Touch Tank  Credit: Carolyne Volpe Curley

After welcoming introductions from Brendan GillLeonard Luciano and Blonnie Watson, Essex County Freeholders, the sheriff assured the community that Turtle Back Zoo would remain a "safe place to bring the family."

Sheriff Armando Fontoura  Credit: Cynthia Heidler Cumming

DiVincenzo acknowledged the efforts of the Freeholders and benefactors like Linda Bowen from PNC Bank, David Tepper of Appaloosa Management, and Lou LaSalle from St. Barnabas for making the new exhibit possible. The county executive spoke of sending a team out to research other New Jersey zoos early in his tenure, when Turtle Back was close to closing in 1995, bringing only $100K in visitors and $400K in revenue. They returned, encouraging him to keep Turtle Back Zoo open, and with over $8 million invested into the zoo, Turtle Back Zoo is now self-sufficient, something DiVincenzo jokingly noted to the governor.

From left: David Tepper of Appaloosa Management, Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo and Governor Chris Christie  Credit: Cynthia Heidler Cumming 

Christie then stepped to the microphone, saying how he recalled coming to Turtle Back Zoo 46 years ago, and how the zoo was a “great experience for families and children.”  “Leave it to Joe D.,” he joked, “to make Turtle Back Zoo the best zoo in the state.”

From left: Governor Chris Christie, daughter Bridget Christie  
Credit: Cynthia Heidler Cumming

After the short press conference, the governor and his daughter cut the ribbon to open the Sea Lion Sound Exhibit.

Following the ribbon-cutting, Governor Chris Christie and his daughter Bridget Christie speak with Senator Teresa Ruiz.  Credit: Carolyne Volpe Curley

Soon after the Christie's then fed the stingrays in the new ‘Touch Tank’ enclosed area.

Governor Chris Christie motions into the water beckoning the stingrays which came
over to him.  Credit: Cynthia Heidler Cumming

The public was then allowed to enter the area which features large tanks where visitors can see the sea lions swimming and an open tank where the stingrays can be fed.

The Touch Tank  Credit: Cynthia Heidler Cumming

The Assemblyman was excited to see the crowd’s response to the exhibit as he said, “Just looking at the faces of all the children gathered there today, it was gratifying to see the happiness they displayed."

Visitors can get up close and view the sea lions swimming freely in their large tank.  Credit: Carolyne Volpe Curley

"Today was definitely a non-partisan event," continued Giblin. "It's a tribute to the combined efforts of different entities working together in the state, county and board of chosen freeholders, along with corporate support, that the zoo has become one of the best in the state, if not in the region." 

Freeholder Brendan Gill was enthusiastic about the new exhibit as well as the new Education Building, slated for opening later this year. “If you grew up in the area, it’s tremendous to see the non-partisan community support for the zoo,” he said.

Essex County Freeholder Brendan Gill viewing the Touch Tank.  
Credit: Carolyne Volpe Curley

Joe Krakoviak, West Orange Town Council member, and his wife, Clare, were also on hand for the opening. “We used to travel to Connecticut to the aquarium when we lived in Westchester County,” noted Ms. Krakoviak. “I just wish our kids were younger so they could appreciate Turtle Back Zoo now.”

“The opening of the sea lion exhibit demonstrates Essex County's commitment to maintaining a state of the art zoo,” expressed Roseland Councilman Richard Leonard who was in the crowd. “The continuing improvements and additions to Turtle Back Zoo have caused attendance to climb every year."

Also attending the festivities was Essex County Clerk Chris Durkin who commented, “The Turtle Back Zoo has become a 'must experience' destination and the new sea lion exhibit is now the proud centerpiece."

Visiting the Touch Tank was Essex County Clerk Chris Durkin.  Credit: Carolyne Volpe Curley

Looking at the faces of the adults and children present at today’s opening, it’s a good guess that kids of all ages will enjoy the new Sea Lion and Sting Ray Exhibits at Turtle Back Zoo.

Credit: Cynthia Heidler Cumming

Turtle Back Zoo is open Monday through Saturday from 10-4:30 pm and Sunday from 11-5:30 pm. Admission is $11 for Adults, $8 for children and senior citizens, and free for children under two.  For more information, including Zoo membership, please call 973-731-5800 or visit

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