Even as it celebrates its 30th year of operations, The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk continues to strive to better itself.
“We will continue to generate research, conservation and education projects and improve the experience for all of our visitors,” COO Dave Truedson said at one of the aquarium’s meeting rooms at 10 N. Water St. “It hasn’t always been easy, but it’s great to see how we’ve grown and are continuing to grow.”
Truedson has the data to back up the aquarium’s success story. Based on traveler ratings on TripAdvisor.com, The Maritime Aquarium is one of the top five aquariums in New England and tops in Connecticut. Annual attendance of nearly 500,000 — including some 80,000 students in the tri-state area who take advantage of its educational programs — results in an annual economic impact of $25 million on the city and $42 million on the state through visitor spending and execution of its $12.3 million budget.
Earlier this year the site received accreditation for another five years from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the body that sets the top standards for animal care and visitor safety at zoos and aquariums. Of the approximately 2,800 animal exhibitors in North America licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, only 8 percent are accredited by the AZA.
All this originated in not-so-humble beginnings on July 16, 1988, when The Maritime Center at Norwalk — the name was changed to The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk in July 1996 to reflect its emphasis on live animals — opened. The $30 million structure grew from a former 1860s iron works factory and, according to Truedson, was inspired by the National Aquarium in Baltimore, which opened in 1981.
While originally focused on boat building and sea exploration, as the 100,000-square-foot building grew the decision was made to refocus on live animals. Today, the 140,000-square-foot facility boasts some 2,000 animals representing about 300 species. “It’s a little hard to count,” Truedson joked.
It’s been quite a ride for the aquarium and Truedson, who said that when he first joined its staff 22 years ago, “there were a couple of flat parking lots outside and not a lot else.” Today it’s surrounded by three large apartment buildings and a six-story, 769-space parking garage. If estimates are correct, the SoNo Collection mega mall will open nearby in October 2019.
Construction on the mall isn’t the only such work being done in the area. Thanks to the pending replacement of the Walk Bridge over the Norwalk River — just steps from a rear entrance to the aquarium — the Norwalk Common Council endorsed in May a settlement agreement in which the state would pay the aquarium $34.5 million to replace its IMAX Theater and other lost exhibit space.
Pending approval, the aquarium plans to build a two-story, 11,939-square-foot addition east of its main entrance, along with a 4-D, 178-seat theater, entrance lobby, ticket area and other space. An existing tent structure would also be replaced by a two-story, 8,748-square-foot addition on the east side of the existing building to house its seals.
Environmental studies are underway to determine whether some of its aquatic species might be adversely affected by vibrations from the Walk Bridge construction, said Associate Director of Communications Dave Sigworth. Staff are concerned not only about the noise from the $1 billion Walk Bridge project itself — expected to begin next year and last into 2023 — but also by the fact that the trains, which carry some 120,000 passengers a day, will continue operations.
Meanwhile, construction continues inside as well. Truedson said new exhibits and/or animals are added on average once a year; the latest exhibit, “Just Add Water” — scheduled to open last weekend, although Sigworth knocked on wood each time he said so — consists of a series of enclosures showcasing life from an arid setting to a fully aquatic environment. The aquarium’s meerkats — apparently hard to disturb — will move from the tent to a “Kalahari” space nearby.
Sigworth said the facility hopes to open the 4-D theater well before the IMAX Theater comes down.
Education remains a key component of the aquarium’s mission. In addition to on-site activities and summer camps, Norwalk maintains “Whole School Partnerships” with five schools in Norwalk, Bridgeport and Stratford. The partnerships are designed to close the science learning achievement gap, said Director of Marketing Tina Tison.
The facility also partners with the Maritime Odyssey Preschool in South Norwalk, where it works with 200 children who are “showing encouraging gains” in their kindergarten readiness, according to Sigworth.
Tison noted that the aquarium’s educators work with teachers to help them meet the goals of the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), a multistate effort to create new education standards that are “rich in content and practice, arranged in a coherent manner across disciplines and grades to provide all students an internationally benchmarked science education,” according to the NGSS group.
But outreach isn’t limited to children. An interactive 32-panel 4K video wall in the entrance area appeals not only to children, who can “launch” a customized animated sea creature into a seascape, can also be used for PowerPoint presentations, birthday parties and proms.
Long Island Sound cruises are also not restricted to scientific research and education. “Our sunset cruises have been really popular for people on date nights,” Tison said.
The aquarium recognizes that it faces an ever-growing amount of competition, she said, not just from video games but also from the various entertainment and recreational activities available in the region and in Manhattan.
“That’s one of the reasons we’re always looking for new ways to keep it fresh,” she said. “We don’t want people coming back here and saying, ‘Oh, I’ve already seen that.’”
As part of its 30th anniversary celebration, graphics have been added as markers through the aquarium’s history, noting important events and when key exhibits opened. On July 21 the facility featured a full day of bonus offerings and entertainers as well as “1988 throwback pricing” for deeply discounted admission throughout the weekend.
Still to be determined is the facility’s next president and CEO, following Brian Davis’ May 25 exit. Truedson said the aquarium has engaged New York-based recruitment firm Korn Ferry to work alongside a committee of its trustees to find Davis’ successor.
Asked when that person might be named, Truedson said they were operating without a deadline. “We’ll continue the search until we find the right person.”