After Dark - How zoos and aquariums are shining a light on conservation


Light events are a great way for zoos and aquariums to connect with their local community, increase visitor engagement, and communicate conservation messaging in an immersive after dark experience. We explore how zoos and aquariums engage their community through after dark events and how they manage issues of accessibility and animal welfare.

Dreamtime Skink at Adelaide Zoo


Light Creatures returns to Adelaide Zoo this winter after a sold out 2021 season. The immersive after dark experience celebrates conservation through an array of larger-than-life lanterns and interactive performances. The light event, held in partnership with Illuminate Adelaide, targets a different demographic than usual (20-to-35-year old’s without children) and helps increase visitor engagement during what is typically one of the quietest times of the year.

The event has been created in collaboration with Anangu woman Elizabeth Close, and Kaurna and Narungga man Jack Buckskin to help amplify Aboriginal voices, promote reconciliation, and share the Kaurna story of Tarutharu, the skink. Signage and site interpretation around the site helps connect the large-scale lanterns and light installations to conservation messaging, projects, and actions that visitors can take beyond the gates. Ticket sales for the event also help to fund Zoos SA's conservation efforts.

Adelaide Zoo has focused on making the event as accessible as possible. This includes making all installations wheelchair accessible, having an adult change facility with a hoist, and providing access to the inclusive Variety Children’s Zoo Nature’s Playground. The large-scale lanterns also remain inflated during the daytime at the zoo allowing visitors who might not be able or may not feel comfortable travelling to the zoo at night to still enjoy a large part of the experience. To help engage and include the deaf and hard of hearing community, Adelaide Zoo has partnered with ‘Deaf: Can Do all’ to translate signage into Auslan via QR codes. This year, following positive feedback, Adelaide Zoo is looking to further increase Auslan translation on site and offer sessions of Audio Description (AD) during both daytime and nighttime sessions.

When it comes to hosting an event, the Adelaide Zoo team always consider animal welfare. Months before the event opened, a core team of events and life sciences staff worked together to strategically plan the route, the positioning of animals and the monitoring of the soundscapes to make sure there was little impact on the animals, particularly those that could be overstimulated. Technical elements such as haze, lighting and soundscapes were tested and animals’ behaviour was monitored both before, during and after the event. 

The Pelicans in particular were gradually introduced to black light, with consistent monitoring by staff. They found that the Pelicans seemed to find the presence of the lights enriching and chose to sleep next to them. The staff also considered the usual noise levels at the zoo compared to the levels that Light Creatures audiences would produce. This led to the discovery that Adelaide Zoo is loud and lively at night even when there is no event, due to it being a city-based zoo. Findings from the first year of Light Creatures in terms of animal welfare will be used to help with the planning and set-up of the 2022 event.


                                              Pelican under black light at Adelaide Zoo                                                          Giant panda at Adelaide Zoo                                                                                       ‘Affinity by Night’ Dolphin presentation at Sea World    

Sea World on the Gold Coast has also been engaging their community through after dark events. Sea World’s ‘Carnivale’ is a festival of culture and colour and ran earlier this year during January and February on selected nights from 5pm - 9pm. After the normal opening hours, the park transformed into a spectacle of colour, sights, sounds and tastes. Guests experienced the animals in the park at night, an exclusive ‘Affinity by Night’ Dolphin presentation and an Aqua Lightshow held on the iconic Sea World Lake.  Shark Bay and Polar Bear Shores exhibits were also open with keeper talks to continue to spread Sea World’s ongoing education, awareness, and conservation efforts. The welfare and wellbeing of the animals remained a priority for the team throughout the event. Marine mammal trainers were present at all exhibits communicating with guests and monitoring the animal’s behaviour and environment. 

Sydney Zoo’s new GLOW festival has also been a recent success, being the biggest and brightest light festival in Western Sydney. The festival is currently being held every night from 5:30pm to 9:30pm Friday 13 May to Sunday 5 June. The festival includes over 50 light sculptures, a tunnel of twinkling lights, interactive installations, a Secret UV Safari, an Ice Rink and more. The festival also includes a pledge wall, where Kids can pledge to ‘Choose, Change and Contribute’ to wildlife and explore other secret messages written in UV ink.

Sydney Zoo has ensured that the GLOW event is as accessible and inclusive as possible by designing it to have no hills or steps for varying levels of mobility. They have also prioritised the safety and welfare of its animals to ensure the event footprint and activations have not affected the animals in any way. So far, the light festival has been so popular that Sydney Zoo has announced a two-week extension, meaning more of the community can now enjoy GLOW.

With Vivid Sydney back in full swing, Wild Lights at Taronga is also once again enchanting visitors from across Australia and the globe with 70 stunning animal lanterns and projections representing 15 iconic species. Running over 18 nights, Wild Lights at Taronga has come together under the theme “where nature shines” connecting guests with animals of the land, of the land and of the sky. This year has also placed a strong emphasis on accessibility and inclusion, with an accessibility tool kit, dedicated volunteers and inclusive installations ensuring this iconic experience could be enjoyed by all.


                                                             Lantern at Sydney Zoo                                                                                               Underwater world lanterns at Adelaide Zoo