The art of lighting Ripley’s Aquarium Canada, Toronto’s newest big attraction

Toronto’s newest big attraction – Ripley’s Aquarium Canada – is not only the largest indoor aquarium in the country but also a first-of-its-kind in lighting design, as it is the only aquarium of its size in the world featuring tanks lit entirely with LED technology.

When Toronto-based lighting designers and engineers Mulvey & Banani first began work on the project in 2010, LED technology had not yet advanced to offer alternates to high-wattage metal halide bulbs (typically used in aquariums), so the original tank design was made up of metal halide sources. With the help of lighting agency partner Salex, the design team discovered a powerful LED floodlight – brand new on the market – with a comparable lumen output to the luminaires they were currently using. It also had the added benefit of full dimming capabilities.

“When Paul and the team at Mulvey approached us on this project, we knew LED would be a more effective option for what they wanted to accomplish,” says Nick Puopolo, partner, Salex. “With the development of the technology over the course of the design phase, we were able to offer some exciting options for the team to test out.”

A challenge for the designers and a key goal for Ripley’s was to create a new aquarium environment that better represented the natural habitat of the tropical fish and plant life. With this in mind, and armed with the latest LED technology, the Mulvey & Banani design team headed to Gatlinburg, Tennessee, to mock up new lighting layouts on an existing Ripley’s aquarium. The mock-ups allowed the team to test different luminaires over the tanks and determine which light source, beam spread and colour temperature would best suit the design. Different fixtures were installed and their ability to withstand the harsh salt-water conditions was tested.

Through strategic placement and angling of the lighting fixtures, the designers were able to create visual effects in the tanks that would typically only be seen by a diver or snorkeller. Where in the past, the light source of a tank would be directly above it – representing the sun at the peak of day – the effects in the new aquarium mimic the sun rising and setting and allow for more dynamic visuals for aquarium visitors while also achieving engagement from aquarium wildlife.

“The new luminaires provided a more natural colour temperature of light than the fish were used to and some of them immediately started swimming playfully within the beams of light,” says Paul Boken, associate lighting designer, Mulvey & Banani. “The marine biologists overseeing the testing commented that they had not seen the fish do that before.”

Other benefits of the aquarium’s LED fixtures include more control, longer life, less maintenance and reduced heat on the mechanical systems. All the lighting is attached to a digital and addressable control board, similar to how lighting fixtures would be controlled in a theatre.

Says Boken, “The dimming of the LEDs provides us with the ability to gradually fade the lighting over the tanks, mimicking a more natural daily cycle for the animals. Like humans, the animals’ circadian rhythms require the same triggers that tell them when it’s time to wake up and when it’s time to sleep.”

Both Boken and his colleague Alan McIntosh come from a background in the theatre, which served them well on this project. Viewing each tank as an individual stage within a larger show, the goal was to create a natural sense of depth, as if the visitor was looking into a much larger body of water. During the design phase, each of the tanks had a scale model developed the same way a set designer would produce one for a theatrical show.

Lighting agency partner Salex helped to specify the lighting fixtures on all the large tanks and worked with its network of lighting manufacturers to provide several different types of fixtures throughout the aquarium.


Mulvey & Banani – Paul Boken, Alan McIntosh, Stephen Kaye; Salex – Nick Puopolo


Boca Flasher, Selux, Zumtobel, Insight Lighting, Visioneering, Scenework, Strand Lighting System


B+H Architects


Salex, the largest lighting agency in Southern Ontario, has been an integral player in Canada’s architectural lighting community for more than 40 years, as a distributor and facilitator of commercial lighting installations and control systems. Architects, engineers and designers turn to Salex for effective, efficient and sustainable lighting solutions. Founded in 1973, Salex has become known in the commercial design industry for the quality of its products, its nimble service offering and its knowledgeable and highly skilled staff. As the exclusive regional distributor of innovative architectural lighting products from prominent Canadian, American and European brands, Salex remains dedicated to the promotion and education of quality, high-efficiency lighting and controls.

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