New York-based architectural lighting design firm, Focus Lighting, has worked closely alongside the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), an organization that manages five of NYC’s six zoos and aquariums, to design the lighting for the New York Aquarium’s Ocean Wonders: Sharks!, a 57,000sf, 3-story exhibit building adjacent to the Coney Island boardwalk. The lighting design works to support the exhibit’s objective to spread the important message of ocean conservation by establishing an immersive atmosphere that mimics a deepdive through the ocean.
Before the Dive
Much like a real dive, visitors’ journey through Sharks! begins outside, where a 1,000ft-long shimmering wall uses wind and reflected light to create a mesmerizing effect reminiscent of ocean waves.
Created by environmental artist Ned Kahn, the wall is comprised of over 33,000 aluminum flappers, wrapping the building’s exterior. Each night, a 5-hour-long lighting program, designed by Focus Lighting, illuminates the wall with a carefully curated set of scenes inspired by ocean life. The show is automatically triggered as sunset over the beach approaches. As night falls, sunlight is slowly replaced by tones of blue and purple light, ebbing and flowing in a rhythm of bioluminescent tides. “The nighttime look of the shimmer wall was critical to creating the sense of excitement we were trying to achieve with this project,” says Principal Designer Christine Hope “Its impact on the Coney Island skyline is unparalleled and captures the curiosity of everyone who sees it.”
Two rows of linear LED strips were installed at the base of the wall to light the flappers, held on delicate outriggers so as not to obscure the view from below. White uplights behind the shimmer wall bounce off the swinging panels and directly into viewers’ eyes as a quick sparkle, while a row of linear LEDs in front of the wall paint the surface in vivid colors that can be seen up and down the boardwalk and beach.
Journey into the Ocean
Inside, the design of the exhibit takes visitors on a dramatic journey as each area takes them deeper into the ocean. “Our lighting throughout is designed to help present the natural beauty each experience is meant to evoke and create the illusion of complete immersion,” explains principal lighting designer Brett Andersen. “To accomplish this, our team worked closely with WCS to understand the natural lighting that occurs in the exhibit’s recreated environments, allowing the team to replicate each with artificial light sources.”
The first tank visitors experience is a tunnel designed to have the look and feel of a bright and colorful coral reef. The lighting team specified RGBW LED fixtures to light this tank, allowing them to tune the lighting to the exact color quality needed to make coral stand out. Other spaces, like the exhibit’s deep ocean shark tank named, “Canyon’s Edge,” required a more dark and ominous feel. A few shafts of “sunlight” from cool white LED spots illuminate a narrow strip of sandy bottom along the front edge of the tank, then the exhibit falls off into darkness. The deeper recesses of the huge tank are flooded with blue LED light so sharks are just barely visible in the murky depths, and then suddenly come into the light as they approach the front of the tank. The viewing area here is completely unlit so that nothing can reflect in the tank and distract from the experience.
Considering much of the lighting is installed above the tank’s water, the lighting team found creative mounting solutions to produce desired lighting effects. Above the entry tunnel, for instance, each light is mounted on a custom-designed trolley system. This allowed for precise fixture placement around the deeply textured coral, while mitigating sightlines into the fixtures. The system also makes maintenance easy as the fixtures can be pulled back over solid ground.
For the “New York Bight” tank, a custom mounting structure was designed and the ceiling above the tank was painted white, so that carefully tuned RGBW floodlights could reflect off the ceiling and into the tank, creating the soft, even glow experienced in waters 60-80ft below the surface. Smaller direct accent spotlights mounted to the top of the mounting structure add subtle, natural feeling highlights to the tank.
The parting message is one of conservation, sustainability and the impact of pollution on our oceans. A “pepper’s ghost” effect simulates garbage floating in the “Canyon’s Edge” tank, while brightly lit interactive displays encourage guests to learn about responsible practices before returning to Coney Island’s boardwalk.
Lighting Design: Focus Lighting
Client: Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS)
Architect: ESKW Architects
Exhibit Designer: The Portico Group
Photo Credits: Ryan Fischer
Paul Gregory, Lighting Designer
Christine Hope, Lighting Designer
Kenneth Schutz, Project Manager
Hilary Manners, Project Manager