On September 21, Johnny Morris, storied founder of Bass Pro Shops and White River Marine Group, cut the ribbon to the Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium in Springfield, Missouri. It was the culmination of a four-decade quest that, some might say, was the driving force behind his development of the world’s grandest outdoor sporting empire.
I realized the enormity of the Wonders of Wildlife complex when I saw that Ernest Hemingway’s 38-foot marlin fishing boat Playmate and Zane Grey’s 146-foot marlin-chasing schooner took up a nearly insignificant amount of space among the aquariums.
The 350,000-square-foot complex housing the museum and aquarium features more than 1.5 miles of trails through realistic wildlife habitats and 1.5-million gallons of freshwater and saltwater aquariums. The Wonders of Wildlife contains 35,000 live fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds displayed in their natural habitats.
“This facility is really all about sportsmen and women, hunters and anglers in our country that have meant so much to conservation,” Morris said to press and dignitaries, including George W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Kevin Costner and Mark Wahlberg. “We want to celebrate them and how much they meant to fish and wildlife, and for that matter, our whole way of life in this country,” he said.
As a fisherman, the aquarium piqued my interest the most. The saltwater and freshwater aquariums, including the hypnotizing baitball tank filled with whirling herring and circling sharks, offered a view of the interaction between prey and predator not possible to witness anywhere else. The towering shipwreck reef, a re-creation of a decommissioned ship intentionally sunk by Morris off the coast of Florida, was impressive in showing how various species of marine life flock to a habitat created by man.
I got fishing fever when I viewed the Lunker Lake aquarium filled with largemouth bass weighing in double digits. Bass fishing superstar Kevin VanDam was on hand and said one heavyweight weighed over 15 pounds. And a neat feature I know my grandkids would enjoy is the piranha aquarium with a crawl space leading to pop-up glass domes inside the aquarium.
Actor Mark Wahlberg dived in the tanks with the fish to the delight of the audience, and so did United States Secretary of the Interior Eric Zinke. He donned a dive suit with a microphone in his helmet to answer questions from young pupils on how to be good conservationists both today and in the future.
I got a kick out of the exhibit re-creating Morris’ humble business venture in his dad’s Brown Derby liquor store in Springfield, Missouri. Morris acknowledges it inspired him to begin Bass Pro Shops back in the early 1970s.
Also fascinating is the Presidents exhibit featuring the fishing tackle of Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter and George Bush, and fishing photos of George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Gerald Ford and Lyndon Johnson.
Wonders of Wildlife ticket prices range from $9.95 for children to attend the aquariums to $39.95 for adult combo passes that cover the entire 1.5-mile exhibit path. The Wonders of Wildlife museum will be open 364 days per year.
WOW, as it’s known in the offices of Bass Pro Shops and White River Marine Group, is the perfect acronym for this, Johnny Morris’ stunning compilation of all things outdoors.
For more information on Wonders of Wildlife, visit wondersofwildlife.org.