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Built between February 1998 and December 1999,the building was designed by Peddle Thorp architects to resemble a ship moored to the river, and opened in January 2000. The depth of the building however was designed not to be imposing at street level, and extends 7 metres (23 ft) below the surface. At its centre is a world first 2,200,000-litre (580,000 USgal) 'oceanarium in the round' where the spectators become the spectacle to the marine life swimming around them.
Soon after opening, the building had a legionnaires disease outbreak that resulted in 2 deaths and another 60 people being affected. Those affected had visited the aquarium between 11 and 27 April 2000. A damages action was brought in May 2000, ending in February 2004.
The Melbourne Aquarium recently underwent a significant expansion, also designed by Peddle Thorp, and now extends from the Yarra River to Flinders Street. A new entrance was built on the corner of Flinders and King Streets. The expansion features exhibits with king penguins and gentoo penguins, as well as many other Antarctic fish, a first for Australia. The exhibits also feature real ice and snow to simulate Antarctic conditions, and take visitors on an expedition to Antarctica.The penguins were sourced from Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World in New Zealand.
The Aquarium has a one-way self-guided tour, which is spread over four levels:
- River to Reef, including the giant Murray cod
- Rock Pools
- Upper Deck Cafe
- Antarctica, featuring king and gentoo penguins
- Weird & Wonderful, featuring giant crabs and sea dragons
- Coral Atoll
- Sea jellies
- Octopus Cove, featuring Giant Pacific Octopus
- Coral Cafe
- Aquarium Shop
- Octopus display
- Kids Play area
- Sharks Alive
- BHP Billiton Shark Conservation Project & Animal Nursery
- Ocean Theatre
While visiting these features visitors come across horseshoe crabs, scorpions and tarantulas in the 'two creepy caves' and a diverse collection of Australian sea jellies.
While the theme is that of "Southern Oceans" there are a few exceptions, including a floor-to-ceiling coral atoll, the mangrove exhibit, the billabong exhibit and the rockpool exhibit.
The aquarium is known for its main exhibit, which features huge grey nurse and sandbar whaler sharks, in a large oceanarium containing many diverse species of marine life.
Temporary exhibitions also frequently come to the aquarium.