By Jamie Hale

The Oregonian

The Oregon Coast Aquarium is already one of the biggest attractions in the state, but now it aims to get even bigger. The Newport aquarium announced a fundraising campaign Wednesday for an $18 million renovation, which would remodel existing facilities and add a marine rehabilitation center, as well as an outdoor play area.

According to the aquarium, this would be the first major remodel since opening to the public in 1992. In that time, the attraction has drawn some 15 million visitors, officials said.

“When the Aquarium opened more than 25 years ago, it was never built to see the number of people that come through our doors,” ­Carrie Lewis, CEO of the Oregon Coast Aquarium, said in a news release. “It’s time to update our exhibits. It’s time to improve the visitor experience. It’s time to provide a true facility for the animal rehabilitation that we do behind the scenes.”

Aquarium workers use an old, repurposed warehouse to care for endangered marine life, and haven’t been able to offer the kind of intensive medical care they’d like to provide for animals like sea turtles, seals and snowy plovers, officials said. The renovation would include a building designed for that purpose.

In its present state, the Oregon Coast Aquarium remains a popular attraction, drawing more than 420,000 visitors each year, according to aquarium numbers. Its indoor tanks of jellyfish, rays, sharks and sea stars are complimented by outdoor exhibits that hold sea lions, birds and an octopus.

The original 40,000-square-foot facility was built on 23 acres of land, and gained international attention in 1996 when it hosted Keiko, the orca who was featured in “Free Willy,” before he was shipped to Iceland for release into the wild.

It sits on the southern shore of Yaquina Bay and neighbors the Hatfield Marine Science Center and Rogue Brewer’s on the Bay — a fitting place for an establishment that bridges the worlds of tourism and science.