For months, Hogle Zoo visitors have lingered at an overlook near the monkey cages, hoping to catch a peek at what lies beneath.
"People have been gathering up there and looking down, dying to know what's going on behind the orange tape," the zoo's community-relations coordinator, Erica Hansen, said Wednesday.
Come Friday, herds of visitors will finally be able to do more than take a glance as the $18 million Rocky Shores exhibit opens.
With this expansion the largest in the zoo's 81-year history a dozen new animals will make their debut, including bears, otters and seals. A couple of bald eagles, which have called Hogle home for nearly three decades, will spread their wings in the new digs as well.
The addition comes courtesy of a $33 million bond measure approved by Salt Lake County voters in 2008 for this and other projects, along with $11 million raised by the zoo on its own.
Set up to mirror wildlife of the Pacific Coast, stretching from Oregon to Alaska, the exhibit offers a chance for visitors to learn about animals that may not be so foreign.
A polar bear, grizzly bears, sea lions, seals, otters and bald eagles comprise the new section. A central gallery offers touch-screen technology and informative displays about the animals, along with some of their prehistoric predecessors.
The goal, Hansen explained, is to educate people and allow up-close viewing, so that visitors will be more likely to help protect animals outside of the zoo. The designers aimed for more "nose-to-nose viewing," especially for younger guests.
The exhibits feature a variety of large windows and clear tank walls, permitting visitors to see the animals throughout their environments.
For instance, the polar bear and sea lion viewing areas offer underwater galleries that extend beneath the surface of the pools. Children then can see Big Guy (a blind 850-pound sea lion) glide past the glass.
In the grizzly and polar bear exhibits, visitors can come face to face with the animals in a two-way mirror. As the bears approach the glass to catch a glimpse of themselves or to take in the shade, viewers enjoy a close-up of one of the West's most enduring symbols.
"This way, when the bears need to rest in the shade," Hansen said, "kids can be right up at the window, getting a good look."
Visitors can also watch as the bears receive health checkups from their keepers. The bears stand up to have their stomachs checked and hold up a paw so keepers can inspect them, all just feet away from onlookers.
Hansen said the three grizzlies Dolly, Lou Lou and Koda may steal the spotlight Friday. The 3-year-old siblings enjoy playing and fighting together, often loudly much like humans at that age.
"There is clearly some sibling rivalry going on there," Hansen said.
Rizzo, an outgoing polar bear from Cincinnati, may give grizzlies a run for the limelight. She often splashes at windows, plays with her assortment of toys and enjoys putting various objects on her head.
"She's just a lady," Hansen said, "just a dainty lady."
Rocky Shores also includes a theater where visitors can kick back in the shade and take in a seal show. Keepers will prompt the three seals Nika, Mira and Hudson to perform various behaviors.
"We don't get to see these sort of underwater creatures very often here in Utah," Hansen said. "It's really going to be breathtaking."
Throughout the facility, children can find play areas and special viewing spots: a large hollowed log where tykes can crawl; a tiny cave offering additional glimpses of the polar bear; and metal sculptures cooled from within so kids can climb them comfortably.
And when visitors get hungry, they can devour ice cream, burgers, hot dogs and fries from the Shoreline Grill. The walk-up restaurant offers freshly grilled fare and "safari sauce" to top off french fries.
Hansen anticipates record attendance this weekend as families come to meet the animals for the first time.
"This definitely marks a new era for the zoo," she said.
Next up for the zoo: an addition to the African savanna, with a groundbreaking this fall and completion in summer 2014.
Until then, the zoo's newest stars Big Guy, Rizzo, Dolly, Lou Lou, Koda & Co. will have center stage.
Hogle Zoo's newest residents
The new Rocky Shores exhibit debuts Friday with the following new animals:
• Rizzo, a playful polar bear from Cincinnati
• Dolly, Lou Lou and Koda, three rambunctious grizzlies from Buffalo
• Big Guy, Maverick and Rocky, three outgoing sea lions from California
• Hudson, Mira and Nika, three energetic harbor seals from L.A.
• Nick and Nellie, a loving couple of river otters from Wisconsin