Aquarium marks 10th year as siren to millions

August 08, 1991|By Michael K. Burns

"If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water," reads the aphorism of naturalist Loren Eisley on the wall over the central pool of Baltimore's National Aquarium.

He can say that again. The Inner Harbor institution, which boasts it is Maryland's most popular paid tourist attraction, celebrates its 10th birthday today as an unqualified success story.

Over the decade, 14 million visitors -- most of them from outside Maryland -- have been lured to this fine kettle of fish, generating an estimated $130 million a year for the state's economy. Some 9,000 people pack the aquarium on a summer weekend day.

Among them this week was Gary Wilson, 10, of suburban Philadelphia, who was fascinated by the shark tank. "I've been waiting to come here all summer," he said.

The aquarium's glistening glass pyramids have redefined the skyline of Baltimore's renascent waterfront.

"It's difficult to exaggerate the importance of the aquarium to the city of Baltimore," says Robert Keller, president of the Greater Baltimore Committee, which represents the area's largest companies. "It's brought us notoriety in travel and convention circles.

"When people come here, they leave with a favorable impression because of their visit to the National Aquarium."

There were construction delays, hundreds of original specimens died in the early months and some people complained about high ticket prices.

But the aquarium was an instant success, in its first year of operation drawing twice the number of visitors expected.

About 1.5 million spectators each year wander through the seven levels of aquatic exhibits containing more than 5,000 animals, from thesunny, steamy South American Rain Forest in the penthouse to the cool dim windows on the "world's largest" pool of rays in the basement.

A science textbook developed by the aquarium staff is used by schools in all 50 states. More than 20,000 children and adults learn from its outreach programs each year, and its research and education efforts train hundreds of potential marine scientists.

Despite a lot of worrying about the hefty $21.3 million initial pricetag -- partly financed by Baltimore's sale of the old Friendship Airport to the state in 1972 -- the aquarium turned a $1 million profit the first year.

Repeat visitors make up at least a quarter of the annual traffic and more than 90,000 people hold memberships. Reserved-time advance ticket sales began in 1985 to shorten the lines, a persistent complaint in the early years.

The big crowds helped speed up plans to build the Marine Mammal Pavilion addition, approved in February 1984 and opened last December. It houses a 1.2 million-gallon amphitheater pool for dolphins and beluga whales, a dining area and educational exhibits.

The pavilion cost $35 million, and with the expansion the general admission price rose 75 cents, to $11.50.

Then came news that the central attraction of the main aquarium, the five-level doughnut-shaped tube pool that houses the Atlantic coral reef and the Open Ocean shark tank, would have to be closed for up to 20 months in late 1992 in order to refinish the saltwater-corroded concrete walls.

Administrators do not expect the temporary closings to hurt attendance. Previous shutdowns of popular attractions did not diminish the size of the crowds.

The aquarium's history has not been without controversy and setbacks.

James S. Kepley, the marine biologist hired in 1978 as the original executive director, abruptly quit two months after the opening, claiming that the job had become one that focused more on finances than on fish.

Several hundred initial specimens and two dolphins died in the early 1980s, raising public concern about the facilities and its care for the animals, and about the rush to get the aquarium opened. Authorities said the losses were not unusual for a new institution.

Noise from water-pumping machinery and human footsteps placed too much stress on the dolphins, who were removed from the center pool in 1982 and shipped to Florida to recover.

Completion of the Marine Mammal Pavilion provided a home for the whales and new dolphins, and families of rays inherited the center pool. But the capture of wild dolphins for the pavilion spurred protests by animal rights activists. They helped block the aquarium's attempt to ship the animals from Florida waters in 1989, which also involved a permits mix-up.

While the pavilion is designed to show off these large animals, the aquarium staff has been careful to stress that its "presentations" of the cetaceans' natural abilities is not the same kind of "circus show" as at theme parks such as Sea World.

The 30-minute performance aims at deepening factual understanding of these creatures, not exaggerating or dismissing their abilities, said Doug Messinger, marine mammal curator. "There is a direct conservation and education message we deliver," he said, "but it is also genuine fun."

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