When Nickel arrived at Shedd Aquarium in 2003, the green sea turtle had survived a crack in its shell after colliding with a boat. He also had a coin in his esophagus – hence the name.
But while Nickel isn’t swimming as well as he used to, he has helped teach millions of visitors from his home in the aquarium’s Caribbean Reef habitat about the overconsumption of plastic and the complexity of its species. Yet his house is about to become much larger.
The Shedd Aquarium released plans to improve many of its exhibits, gardens and learning spaces by 2027. President and CEO Bridget Coughlin said they will move towards emphasizing animal biology and behavior rather than the current geo-based setup in the aquarium. . He hopes it will encourage visitors to take action on sustainability and climate change.
“Creating moments of deeper connection with the animal kingdom is really about erasing this human nature divide,” Coughlin said.
The renewal is divided into four phases over the course of four years. While some improvements have been completed, most of them will open next summer. Another round is scheduled to open in the summer of 2026 and the next in the winter of 2026. $500 million Centennial Commitment Before its 100th anniversary in 2030. The Shedd will remain open for the duration of construction, with new exhibits and programs constantly being introduced.
According to Coughlin, Shedd plans to convert the North Gallery into a 40-foot tunnel. International Union for Conservation of Nature thinker Spotted eagle rays are a near-threatened species, meaning their population is dwindling.
The tunnel is twice the size of Nickel’s current Caribbean Reef home and will likely open in summer 2026.
Visitors will make some changes next summer. According to their announcement, the aquarium will transform the four-acre gardens surrounding Shedd’s lakeside building into a “living classroom.” Shedd would like to host free educational programs, including lessons in gardening honey production and planting onions. Coughlin said that migratory birds and insects will also live in the green area.
“Chicago is on a major aviary flight path and migrating from birds to bees to Chicago’s plants of the same name, we’re making our gardens more accessible,” he said.
The Amazon Rising gallery also has planned renovations to help visitors get closer to the animals. Andrew Pulver, vice president of animal care, said the aquarium will provide more than double the water for arapaima, a freshwater fish that can grow up to 10 feet long.
“We’re providing this larger habitat, but we’re also designing it so that we can bring those giant fish right next to them while they’re feeding the guest, and they can just see these giant fish. they swallow their food on the surface,” Pulver said.
Pulver said there are other interesting additions to the aquarium scheduled to open in the summer of 2026. For example, a new Whalefall exhibit will show the environment created at the bottom of the seafloor when a whale dies.
Pulver added that whales have a unique connection to climate change, which the exhibition will highlight. He said that when whales die, crabs and other animals eat whale carcasses, showing that “nature leaves no waste.” Whales also accumulate carbon in their bodies throughout their lives. This means that whales naturally go through a process of capturing or removing carbon dioxide.
“We’re going to have this rib cage of a whale with the food we provide for really cool, big, giant crabs, and to be able to get a close-up view of what this process would be like in nature and connect guests to the fact that it’s something. It’s a natural process,” Pulver said.
Another addition by summer 2026 will be the Lakeside Learning Studio. Coughlin estimates that moving educational spaces up from the basement will help them engage more closely with 50,000 students each year. He said the “bright, sunny space” will have space for more lessons and field trips, and will help kids learn about everything from microplastics to hagfish slime and seaweed.
“Imagine coming in and seeing microplastics from the Great Lakes under a high-powered microscope and then having a design challenge on how we can prevent the plastic from getting in and collect the plastic that’s already there,” Coughlin said. “As you taste seaweed, you learn that it is one of the largest carbon capture biomes on the planet.”
There are also a number of other improvements to the aquarium. From a renovated gallery showcasing the biology of an Illinois stream to new safety features, there’s always been a focus on “animals first,” Pulver said.
“For animals, these changes will be great,” Pulver said. “It also really helps the animal care team to have more space to access and work with animals, which gives us more flexibility in developing new grooming techniques.”
The Aquarium announced its eight-year vision, called the Centennial Commitment, in 2022. the biggest expansions Chicago museum history. Renovating and redesigning galleries and educational spaces will cost about half of the $500 million budget, with the rest going to expand education programs and support research. Funding came from donations as well as corporate and community gifts.
They’re already open”Plankton Emerged” earlier this summer. This is the aquarium’s first bilingual exhibit with English and Spanish texts that help guests learn about the important role small organisms play in aquatic ecosystems. Also this year they started the construction of an aquatic science laboratory for conservation research and animal clinical care.
Aquarium officials hope the on-site conversion will create more than 2,000 jobs. Shedd also set goals to give some of its contracts to minority and women-owned businesses. They also want Chicago residents to perform at least half of the on-site labor, according to a news release.
“Shedd Aquarium’s Centennial Commitment is a transformative investment essential to our quest for environmental justice that will provide unprecedented opportunities for the city’s CPS students and youth to connect with nature and the environment,” said Chicago Mayor Brandon Johnson.
Coughlin said the renovations included input from the aquarium’s animal care and education teams, as well as outside groups such as Landmarks Illinois, the Mayor’s Office for the Disabled, the Chicago Park District, and the Chicago Public Schools.
Coughlin said the renovations will honor the historic elements of the aquarium’s nearly 100-year-old building. Architecture firm Graham, Anderson, Probst & White originally designed a white marble and terracotta temple to celebrate aquatic life.
Coughlin said they plan to restore the walls and unblock seven 30-foot windows to give guests a better view of the lake. They also want to make the aquarium more accessible for people with strollers or mobility aids, with new pathways and fewer stairs.
“We have three different areas where you have to use the stairs and the ramps, so instead of people using the stairs, you can now walk through the kelp forest starting at the top of the ocean floor and going down the water column, seeing the animals on the road,” he said.