Making waves for 25 years

August 03, 2006|By MARC SHAPIRO | MARC SHAPIRO,SUN REPORTER

Twenty-five years of success has certainly not gone to David Pittenger's head. The executive director of the National Aquarium in Baltimore is already making plans for the next 2 1/2 decades.

"During our second 25 years, we're trying to build on the mission of conservation and education," Pittenger said. He's been working for the aquarium since July 1979 - a little more than two years before it opened - when he started as director of education.

Starting Tuesday, Pittenger and the rest of the aquarium staff will take a month to celebrate the aquarium's 25th anniversary with music, lectures, animal exhibits and kids' activities.

Festivities begin 11 a.m. Tuesday with a performance by the Baltimore Islanders steel-drum band and free tours of two ships used in environmental ventures. At noon, Mayor Martin O'Malley will declare National Aquarium Day, and the Harry & Jeanette Weinberg Waterfront Park on Pier 3 will be dedicated with the planting of the last tree in the new park.

From then until 4 p.m., performer Uncle Pete With Kids will give an interactive musical celebration for kids. Duff Goldman, of the Food Network and Charm City Cakes, will make a giant fish-shaped cake on the aquarium pier. The weekly free outdoor film festival will kick off at 8:30 p.m. on the pier with screenings of Shark Tale and Animal Planet's Meerkat Manor.

Kathy Sher, the aquarium's deputy director of external affairs who also has been working there since the beginning, said that each anniversary the attraction tries to re-create the atmosphere from the opening day in 1981.

"The Harbor was still pretty young, the tourism was just starting to grow," she said, "so there was a thought that we needed to make it a really festive environment ... make it a memorable experience."

Patrons can talk with aquarium experts and environmental authors Aug. 14, 21 and 28. Topics include playtime for the animals, building a naturalistic habitat and how to save the ocean. Every Wednesday this month in the Weinberg Waterfront Park, guests can learn how to help the Chesapeake Bay with hands-on activities.

Every Thursday starting next week, a jazz trio will play while guests sample Australian wines, an homage to the aquarium's Animal Planet Australia: Wild Extremes exhibit. Visitors can see some of the animals in that exhibit up close Aug. 11, 18, 25 and Sept. 1. And during the weekends of the silver-anniversary celebration, Aug. 12-13, 19-20 and 26-27, kids can go on a hunt for silver-colored fish.

Sher remembers the Inner Harbor in its early stages, when the area was being revitalized.

"It was a very exciting time to watch all these things be built," she said. "I think there was a real aura of energy."

People had no idea what to expect the aquarium to be like because there weren't many other aquariums around at the time, she said.

"Folks were really curious what a six-story building with millions of gallons of water would be like," Sher said.

Initial estimates said that the aquarium would receive 600,000 people per year. In its 25 years, the aquarium has had more than 37 million visitors, approximately 1.6 million per year.

"Nobody had predicted how successful the aquarium was going to be from an economic and tourist point of view," Pittenger said. But these numbers are not what Pittenger is most proud of.

He's much more excited about the aquarium's continuing conservation - including restoration of 75 acres of wetlands in the bay area. Recently, when the aquarium acquired animals for its Australian exhibit, it started working with the Territory Wildlife Park in Australia on the longtime survival of rare species there.

The aquarium's conservation and education efforts are coupled with exhibits and family activities. Pittenger realizes that a lot of people go there just to have a day with the family.

"But if they come down, they might want to get involved," he said. "It's kind of meeting people halfway."

The National Aquarium in Baltimore is at 501 E. Pratt St. Admission is $21.95 for adults, $12.95 for children 3-11, $20.95 for adults 60 and older and free for children younger than 3. For more information, visit aqua.org or call 410-576-3800.

marc.shapiro@baltsun.com

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