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Aquariums Meet Unique Challenges

By Hillary Richard
min read

Aquarium Resiliency

In her rush to prepare the waterfront Jenkinson’s Aquarium in Point Pleasant Beach, N.J., for a once-in-a-lifetime storm barreling up the East coast of the United States, Director Cindy Claus, missed a phone call from a stranger at the Audubon Aquarium in New Orleans, La. She played the message while she was sandbagging.

“It said, ‘Hey, we’ve been through this. I know what you’re going through. Take lots of pictures before the storm gets there,’” said Claus. She was confused at the time, but decided to take the advice. These photos became invaluable for the Aquarium’s insurance claims after Hurricane Sandy washed away the entire basement only days later.

Photo of Jenkinson's Aquarium after Hurricane Sandy
Photo of Jenkinson's Aquarium after Hurricane Sandy. Photo Credit: ©Jenkinson's Aquarium

Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited aquariums have weathered all kinds of circumstances with creativity and determination. At a time when everyone is navigating the best way to rebound from the pandemic, sharing stories of resilience is not only encouraging but also practical.  

Unique Challenges

Jenkinson’s Aquarium has been a staple on the Jersey Shore boardwalk for 30 years. Cindy Claus was one of the facility’s first employees. Because of its small size, everyone at the Aquarium has to cross train between departments.

“If you’ve worked here, you’ve seen a little bit of everything—from marketing to education to cleaning the penguin exhibit to water testing. By being small, we’re mighty,” said Claus.

It was that mightiness that helped Jenkinson’s Aquarium survive Hurricane Sandy in 2012. Thanks to regular drills and protocols, the staff had moved all animals and emergency equipment out of the basement, labeled everything, and set up a command station on the top floor with tents and sleeping bags. Enduring days without power or much outside communication, the team updated the protocols with ideas for the future as they were fresh in their minds. They now consider them living documents, which are constantly evolving.

Right whale jumping out of the water
Right whale. Photo Credit: ©New England Aquarium

One creative addition to the emergency plan? Glow sticks left over from the Christmas lights program. While they waited for backup generators, glow sticks helped the staff access dark tanks to monitor fish and animals. They used them to light up the dark stairwells for safety, and inadvertently, led the police upstairs once they arrived to do welfare checks on people.

“The AZA family stood out. I think I didn’t realize how important it is to be a part of that until you’re in something like this. Communication lines were down, but when messages could get through to us, there were calls from all over the country from other facilities offering an extra generator and asking if we needed to move animals. People we hadn’t even met were so willing to be there,” said Claus.

That kind of support led to the initial pre-storm phone call, which saved the Aquarium so much grief, time, and money when it came to replacing items through insurance.

“You’ve been working with these systems for so long, but do you really know how to fill out the intricate insurance forms detailing what you lost?” said Claus. “It was a godsend to take those photos. It helped to easily repurchase the exact systems, which we took new photos of and put them in the file again, just in case.”

Trouble with Trains

Outside of Maritime Aquarium
Photo Credit: ©Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk

The Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, Conn., found itself in a difficult situation when a nearby 130-year-old railway swivel bridge (the main line for commuters between Boston and New York) required extensive repairs. The Aquarium consists of several buildings divided by the railway tracks. To gain access to the bridge, the government sought to condemn land with the Aquarium’s signature assets: its IMAX theater and its indoor-outdoor harbor seal space.

We were thrown under the train tracks, literally,” said Jason Patlis, chief executive officer. “There was a question as to whether we would even survive this.”

The relatively small 32-year-old Aquarium is the second largest family attraction in Connecticut and a major economic and educational engine for the state. Local representatives and the public helped underscore the importance of the Aquarium. After roughly five years of discussion, the state agreed to an unprecedented “functional replacement.” They offered $40 million to the Aquarium.

The Maritime Aquarium used those funds to replace its IMAX theater with a new 4D version. The Aquarium rebuilt a larger harbor seal pool in another location, and moved it completely indoors after conducting several acoustic tests to determine the best ways to protect the seals from five years of construction noise.

The “functional replacement” doesn’t cover everything, however. The Aquarium will still lose a number of exhibits and will have to move their entrance. The Maritime Aquarium will also have to raise the remainder of its estimated $53-58 million in expenses itself through fundraising and a new capital campaign—during a pandemic.

“Be perseverant, be creative, be optimistic. These things involved extraordinary long negotiations. I think the idea of the functional replacement is very revolutionary, not something the state or municipal governments would think of when they’re just doing eminent domain and looking to condemn land or property as they think about public infrastructure projects they need to build,” said Patlis. “The overall costs we expect to incur from the bridge issue are closer to $53-58 million, we’ll have to raise the remainder ourselves through fundraising and a new capital campaign. We’re doing that in the middle of the pandemic. It won’t be easy, but I’m optimistic.”

Unexpected Collaborations

A Tennessee Aquarium employee holding a sturgeon
Photo Credit: ©Tennessee Aquarium

Staff and procedural changes at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, Tenn., during the pandemic led to some exciting and unintended consequences. The Tennessee Aquarium has a volunteer program for members of the public. When shutdowns started and part-time staff was furloughed, the Aquarium asked staff to help volunteer. Dr. Bernard Kuhajda, the science program manager, works in the research and conservation branch of the Aquarium. Last year, he worked one day a week as a ticket taker at the front desk.

“Here’s a research scientist learning how to scan tickets, where the restaurants are, etc. That was interesting. I know fish. I don’t know people that well,” said Kuhajda.

Every morning, the volunteers had a group circle to share updates. Kuhajda talked about the fieldwork he was trying to do with a drastically reduced team. A visitor services volunteer with a biology background volunteered to help. The research department had never needed volunteers before, but it turned out to be a tremendous help. Through word of mouth, more people volunteered for fieldwork. Kuhajda expects the volunteer program to continue post-pandemic.

In addition, the department worked on writing more grants than normal during the pandemic to help fund future conservation initiatives.

Sturgeon being released by Tennessee Aquarium
Photo Credit: ©Tennessee Aquarium

They also had time and space to get creative with research. Since 1999, the Aquarium has participated in a lake sturgeon reintroduction program in conjunction with U.S. Fish and Wildlife. The Aquarium raises artificially fertilized sturgeons, which are then released after a year. Because of government shut downs, the sturgeons weren’t released last year. For the first time in over 20 years, the Aquarium had larger sturgeons to study—two feet versus the usual seven inches. They drew blood to look for genetic abnormalities and found a marker for extra chromosomes, which comes from mixing eggs and milt too vigorously. After learning about the problem and cause, Fish and Wildlife decided to change their artificial fertilization procedures.

“Don’t be afraid to throw ideas against the wall and see what sticks. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve said, ‘This is just a thought and it might be crazy, but….’ Those are the ones that work sometimes,” said Kuhajda. “If it doesn’t work, you’re no worse off. If it does, you’re better off. You’ve got nothing to lose.”

Research and Rescue

At the New England Aquarium in Boston, Mass., adaptation has proven to be the key to resilience. The Aquarium has a research arm, the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life, and a rescue arm for turtles, The Animal Care Center, each subsidized by ticket sales and events—which dried up during pandemic closures.

“We’re not going to compromise on research or conservation, because that’s the core of what we do. Our community really stepped up to help us raise $10 million of mission forward funds to help fuel the research work,” said Vikki Spruill, chief executive officer at the Aquarium.

During the pandemic, the turtle hospital had to shift its focus from the individual turtle to population management, thanks in part to a smaller staff and social distancing protocols. It didn’t help that the hospital received 900 stranded and cold-stunned turtles from Cape Cod this year—the second highest amount in the hospital’s 30-year history. Staff biologists set up temperature zones to raise the turtles’ body temperatures 10 degrees per day and the hospital coordinated with other rescue facilities and volunteer pilots.

New England Aquarium researcher watching a right whale
Photo credit: ©New England Aquarium

The Aquarium also continued its right whale research, which it has been conducting over 40 years, but with a revamp. The fieldwork team became a quarantine pod. They continued their aerial surveys, but stayed within a limited geographic region instead of venturing into Canada like usual. Instead, they partnered with other organizations to share data sets. The New England Aquarium also launched an incubator accelerator project called Sea Ahead, which helps advise start-ups looking for new tech solutions to help ocean-related problems. Thanks to the data sets from right whale research, they have developed some conservation wind energy partnerships.

“Agility is challenging,” said Spruill. “We’re a 50-year-old organization. We’re good at a lot of things and like many other institutions, got used to doing things a certain way. Now, we’re forced to adopt a resilient mindset and to work together in different ways to ensure our future. That’s not a bad thing.”

Hero Photo Credit: ©Tennessee Aquarium

Hillary Richard is a writer based in Bloomfield, N.J. 

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