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High-Tech Water Worlds Slosh to Stardom


A scuba tank is not generally a standard-issue item for a groundbreaking ceremony.

Yet diver Mike Ashkouri gripped his mask with one hand, grasped a shovel in the other, and slipped beneath Boston Harbor to turn a shovelful of muck on the harbor's bottom.

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His brief dive Sept. 12 marked the official start of Phase 1 in a $70-million expansion project at the New England Aquarium in Boston, Mass. When the entire project is complete, the aquarium's exhibits will tell the story of a region's relationship with water - from inland ponds and lakes to the Atlantic Ocean.

The New England Aquarium is not alone in expanding its efforts to bring people face to face with everything from tadpoles to tiger sharks. In Lisbon, Kuwait City, Singapore, and points in between, the world is undergoing a surge of aquarium planning, building, and expansion not seen since the turn of the last century.

"The pace of construction has increased dramatically" over the past 25 years, says architect Peter Chermayeff, head of Cambridge Seven Associates Inc., a firm based in Cambridge, Mass., that many credit with leading a sea change in aquarium design.

This late-20th-century aquarium boom is expanding on a diet of ideas substantially different from that of its late-19th-century predecessor, according to marine biologist and historian Leighton Taylor.

In the United States, he points out, Phineas T. Barnum opened the first aquarium in New York in the 1850s. The circus impresario stocked his tanks with Beluga whales from the Gulf of St. Lawrence and reef fishes from the Florida Keys. Barnum's intended message: "We're humans, and we dominate the world," Dr. Leighton explains. "Western cultures were land-based. They saw oceans as ways to get somewhere, as battlefields, or as things to exploit."

While these notions still find echoes today, he notes that the growth of the environmental movement during the past quarter century has led to "a greening of people's consciousness." As the culture changed, he says, so did aquariums, many of which have become living stages for telling the story of water's importance to the ecological health of the planet as well as for marine-conservation efforts.

A profitable institution

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Moreover, many cities in the US that built aquariums found that "of all the cultural institutions - art museums, symphony orchestras, and so on - aquariums seemed to be able generate cash surpluses over expenses," Dr. Taylor says. In short, they make money. Communities began to see aquariums as potential magnets for bringing new economic vitality to city centers.

But the approach isn't foolproof, according to Karen Fiene, a senior associate and president of Eshrick Homsey Dodge & Davis, a San Francisco-based architectural firm that designs aquariums. She points to the Thomas H. Kean Aquarium in Camden, N.J., which opened in 1992, as an example. "The aquarium was seen as an anchor for redevelopment on the New Jersey shore. But the expected redevelopment around it never happened. It had a hard time meeting its financial goals."

Taylor adds that the Florida Aquarium in Tampa, which opened in the spring of 1995, also has had a difficult time. Its problems had less to do with the neighborhood than with the debt incurred to build the facility.

The money was raised primarily through bond issues, instead of through private donors or corporate grants. Financial planners counted on high attendance levels to provide the money to repay the bonds.

The turnstiles haven't been rotating as quickly as financial planners hoped, and the facility has been having trouble making its debt payments, Taylor says, adding, "It's the fault of the financial planners, not of the aquarium itself."

Two projects an ocean apart illustrate how the economic and educational motives can converge almost in spite of themselves.

A world within the walls

In Tennessee, Carey Hanlon cheerfully reports that the maple grove is beginning to show color on his little piece of the Great Smokey Mountains.

Mr. Hanlon's piece of the Smokies, however, is carefully encased beneath an angular glass structure atop the 12-story Tennessee Aquarium, next to the Tennessee River in Chattanooga. The facility is the largest fresh-water aquarium in the world. Hanlon is chairman of the aquarium's board of trustees. The glass structures, in which the maple grove is enclosed, are Peter Chermayeff hallmarks.

Completed in 1992, the $45-million aquarium was born out of the need to upgrade the city's rundown waterfront. Having seen the positive effect the New England and Baltimore Aquariums - previous Chermayeff projects - had on their respective neighborhoods, Chattanooga's leaders wanted to repeat the feat.

"During our research we found that the Tennessee River story is rich and extraordinary," Chermayeff recalls. "There are more species of plants and animals in the Tennessee River's watershed than in all of Florida. The glaciers never got that far south, so evolution was not interrupted. We also found that people had a passion for their river."

What emerged was a facility that not only showed aquatic life, but plant and animal life along a range of river habitats - from the cold forests at the headwaters to bayou country at the mouth of the Mississippi.

"Everybody else in Chattanooga thought we were crazy to build an aquarium," Hanlon says. "We had very few supporters until the day it opened."

Since then, attendance has been running at between 1.3 million and 1.5 million a year, versus a projected 650,000 a year.

Respect for the facility as an education and conservation institution has been slower in coming, says Sandy Skorput, education director at the aquarium. "People still see us as a tourist attraction."

But that is changing.

In May, the aquarium, the University of Tennessee, and the Tennessee River Gorge Trust formed a nonprofit institute to conduct aquatic research in the Southeastern US. Already, at least five projects are under way, ranging from watershed restoration to mapping turtle populations.

Salute to the Seven Seas

Chermayeff, just back in his Cambridge office from a trip to Europe, shows a photo of what will be the largest aquarium in Europe when it is finished. Located along Lisbon's waterfront, the facility is part of Lisbon's Expo '98. It not only celebrates Lisbon's heritage as a seafaring pioneer; its planners also see it as an important educational tool for the International Year of the Oceans, also in 1998.

With the Lisbon project, "the idea is to look at Earth as one ocean," Chermayeff says. "We've selected four oceans as pieces of a larger idea." As he lays out blueprints, the four coastal habitats - Azores, Indian Ocean reef, California kelp forest, and a Falklands-like southern ocean shore - sit like extensions at the corners of a vast, roughly square main tank capable of holding 1 million gallons of water.

Though separated from the main tank by thick panels of clear acrylic, the creatures swimming in the individual habitat tanks will appear to viewers as sharing the seas with the larger, deep-sea fish. Once the Expo ends, he says, the $70-million facility will help anchor what will become shops, apartments, and offices in former Expo buildings.

Critical differences

Taylor, for one, sees some troubling signs in the increased tempo of aquarium construction. "I'm worried about private-sector aquariums," he says. "Their ultimate mission is not education or conservation. Their mission is to generate revenue."

As a result, he continues, falling revenues could put such facilities at risk of "deteriorating into roadside attractions" in which care for the fish and other marine life gets shortchanged.

"The public won't let us get away with that stuff anymore," he says. Failing to distinguish between nonprofit education and research aquariums and for-profit facilities, the public could misdirect its outrage about mistreated animals.

For example, Vancouver, B.C. is considering a law to prohibit the local aquarium from holding marine mammals - its area of conservation and research expertise. Those who support the measure, Taylor says, are basing their views on actions at other facilities, not on the record of the aquarium affected by the law.

"The community needs to see that an aquarium is more than an anchor or moneymaker," says Mike Spranger, assistant director of the University of Washington's sea grant program.

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