Born of the Sea


On the edge of Boston stands a building that has defied conventionality. Built in the 1960s, the structure was inspired by an angular futuristic design that hadn’t been seen in Boston before; its core was made of concrete instead of red brick; almost every inch of the exterior walls were covered in large, rectangular, silver plates that shone brightly in the sun; and the building was situated on the edge of Boston Harbor, a location where few businesses or organizations dared to establish themselves. Inside, the building was dark and reflections of blue water moved along the concrete walls. When visitors walked through the entrance, they felt as though they had been transported below the surface of the ocean.

The strange silver building was the first of its kind in the nation and was the first successful establishment in a part of Boston that had been forgotten. The aquarium brought life back in to Boston harbor soon after its opening day.

Inside the strange silvery structure were glass tanks holding carefully monitored aquatic ecosystems. Dozens of miniature habitats mirrored those found in the South American Amazon, East Asian estuaries, Southern African coastlines, Australian oceans and the northern Atlantic harbors. Each tank had a team of caretakers and researchers making sure that every last detail had been accounted for and the occupants were comfortable and content. Underwater currents were turned on and off throughout the day and repositioned so the fish wouldn’t become exhausted from swimming in the same direction. Teams of scientists conducted research on water quality in various parts of the world and brought back results for their own tanks, manipulating the slightest details to bring the highest level of comfort to the fish and even encourage behaviors like mating (a phenomenon that is rare in captivity). Even the resident octopus was given daily puzzles to solve and activities to do to keep it’s mind fresh and active. Over 150 species of aquatic animals lived at Boston Harbor’s New England Aquarium.

David B. Stone, the aquarium’s founder, wanted a place that put the needs of the inhabitants first - a place that valued conservation and education over profit and entertainment. Since it opened its doors in 1969, the New England Aquarium has redefined what it means to be an aquarium. Focusing on conservation efforts, education and engaging entertainment, NEA works to solve many of the problems the world’s oceans are facing.

The years have brought prosperity and progress to the aquarium. Visitors are encouraged to acquaint themselves with the world’s oceans through interactive experiences, beautifully designed exhibits, educational and entertaining presentations and even IMAX movies. The revolutionary facility not only strives to enlighten the populace about ocean life, it also has been a catalyst for exponential redevelopment along Boston Harbor. Massive public and private investments were made in the years after the New England Aquarium opened in 1969. It is now the star attraction along the completely renovated harbor and sees over one million visitors every year.

The aquarium is designed to make visitors feel as though they are underwater. Surrounded by thousands of gallons of water, it’s hard not to get this enchanted feeling.

The entire aquarium was built around a giant 200,000 gallon, four story, tropical ocean tank that now houses nearly 1,000 Caribbean reef creatures, including moray eels, sharks, stingrays and an eighty-year-old green sea turtle named Myrtle. Five times a day, trained divers explore the tank, hand feed every single fish, check on the health and well-being of the tank, and wave hello to visitors outside.

Chris Bauernfeind, a Giant Ocean Tank diver of nine years, dives five times a day, takes copious notes and manages the diving schedule for his fellow co-workers. “Even though I’ve been here for almost a decade, I am still considered a ‘newby’ here,” he said. “Most everyone I work with has been here for almost thirty years and they all are dedicated to NEA’s animal care and conservation programs.”

The New England Aquarium was the result of an idea thought up by David B. Stone (1928-2010), a man dedicated to preserving marine ecosystems and educating others about aquatic wildlife. The success of Stone’s vision was realized within a year of the aquarium’s opening day when two African penguins laid eggs, an event that was a testament to the aquarium’s outstanding habitat conditions. By 2006, sixty chicks had hatched and were living comfortably in an exhibit designed to educate visitors about penguin conservation. Being the first aquarium to have researchers work alongside caregivers, the NEA was able to provide optimal care to every inhabitant and ensure healthy, thriving mini aquatic environments.

Stone’s dream didn’t only affect lives inside the aquarium’s concrete walls, it changed lives in oceans across the globe as well. Before the New England Aquarium’s doors opened for the first time, Stone orchestrated the nation’s first marine rescue team in 1968 and established rescue programs for cold-stunned sea turtles and injured dolphins, porpoises and right whales. Over the last 20 years, more than 12,000 sea turtles have been rescued. The aquarium also was a pioneer in bringing educational components outside the facility and into schools and community centers. In 2006, a project was put in place to preserve one of the largest and most diverse aquatic zones in the South Pacific.

African penguins, Little Blue penguins and Rockhopper penguins reside at the base of the aquarium. Visit in the morning to watch them eat breakfast.

“It’s all about getting people to care,” said Lindsay Oliveira, seal trainer at the aquarium’s Marine Mammal Center. “The more people we reach and connect with, the better chance these creatures have of thriving in the wild.” Oliveira has been working with the rescued and non-releasable seals at NEA for eight years and has loved every minute of it. She spends most of her time with two seals, Roxy and Lou. Roxy is 24-years-old and the grandmother/ matriarch of the group. Lou is 4-years-old and madly in love with Roxy; he follows her around wherever she goes and won’t do anything without her.

As representatives for their wild counterparts, sea lions like Roxy and Lou help educate millions of visitors about ocean life and the importance of taking care of the planet.

The majority of Oliveira’s training involves encouraging natural behaviors in the seals that are helpful during medical procedures such as holding up flippers for flexibility checks, laying still for blood draws, and finding toys for visual and tactile check-ups. A few unconventional behaviors are also taught, such as kissing visitors and twirling around in a circle. “These interactions with visitors help solidify emotional connects and encourage empathy and caring in visitors,” Oliveira said.

Combining education with memorable entertainment and calls to action, the NEA has fostered new generations of ocean stewards and demonstrated its role as a global conservation leader. This mission has supported the aquarium for decades and is still just as strong as it was on its opening day. However, even after everything the NEA has accomplished in the last 50 years, its staff members agree that there is still much to be done. More miles of ocean need to be protected. More species need to be pulled from the grip of extinction. More people need to have access to information about the mysterious lives of leafy seadragons, rockhopper penguins, green anacondas and other aquatic creatures. Above all else, more daily routines need to be changed before the oceans are safe from toxic pollutants, dangerous fishing strategies, ship accidents and unsustainable commercial fish collection techniques. Until these goals are achieved, the New England Aquarium will undoubtedly continue to inspire oceanic stewardship in every visitor who walks through its doors.

The first inhabitants you’ll see when you visit the aquarium are the Atlantic Harbor Seals, situated in an enclosure just outside the entrance. Bobbing up and down in the water like shiny spotted buoys, the three seals enjoy inspecting each new visitor. The exhibit is a slice of New England’s rocky coast and allows for the seals to dive deep, play and come ashore to bathe in the sun. Trainers work with them every day and provide enough enrichment to keep them busy.

Photo courtesy of New England Aquarium.

Around the corner from the entrance is a special shark exhibit featuring Cownose Rays, which are coastal rays that can be found in the Atlantic Ocean from New England to the Yucatan and West Africa. These swift and graceful creatures glide around their wide enclosure, occasionally surfacing to run their smooth backs under the outstretched palms of visitors. While we were visiting, one ray came up and flipped a fin at us, splashing us with salty water. In the wild, cownose rays travel in large groups, sometimes as large as 100,000. Even though the group at the aquarium wasn’t as large, the rays traveled together searching for snacks, just like a group in the wild.

When you walk through the main entrance doors, you are immediately greeted by three different species of penguins: African penguins, Little Blue penguins and Rockhopper penguins. The impressive penguin enclosure wraps around the ground floor of the central Giant Ocean Tank and allows visitors to view the penguins from above. Touch screens around the exhibit introduce individual penguins and their stories, such as Plumb Pudding, an African penguin who was born and raised at NEA. If you arrive at the aquarium early enough, you can watch the penguins eat breakfast. Keepers wade through the cold water calling penguins by name. Each penguin waddles over and grabs a fish or two while the keepers take notes on his or her health and behavior.

The Giant Ocean Tank was the first part of the aquarium to be built. The four story, 200,000 gallon tank is home to more than 1,000 creatures including three rescued green sea turtles and three giant moray eels. A winding concrete walkway hugs the tank from the bottom floor all the way to the top, where visitors can watch divers enter the water. The tank was recently renovated to incorporate a variety of species of coral and a new setting for the inhabitants to enjoy.

Myrtle, the green sea turtle, was introduced to the Giant Ocean Tank in 1970 and still glides around it to this day. No one knows exactly how old she is, but her approximate age is 80. She weighs 500 pounds and eats lettuce, Brussels sprouts, cabbage and squid.

One of our favorite NEA enclosures is home to a Giant Pacific Octopus, an incredibly intelligent creature that can grow to be 20 feet long from tentacle tip to tentacle tip and weigh up to 150 pounds. A Giant Pacific Octopus lives anywhere between California and Alaska and can live on the shore or at depths of 500 feet. The octopus at NEA is given enrichment on a regular basis in the form of puzzles and brain teasers. Live crabs are placed inside boxes with locks and the octopus figures out how to unlock the box. One day, the octopus didn’t want to wait to figure out the lock, so he squeezed himself through a tiny crack in the acrylic and wedged himself inside the box.

Photo courtesy of New England Aquarium.

Continuing up through the aquarium, you’ll probably hear a constant clicking noise that doesn’t sound like anything you’ve heard from an animal before. Follow the noise until you come to an electric eel enclosure. The enclosure was designed to measure the electric pulses that the eel gives off when searching for food. The technology then produces a loud clicking noise to demonstrate how often the eel uses its technique. We watched the eel move from one end of the enclosure to the other and observed its behavior as the clicks grew closer together, then further apart. When the eel drew close to a mess of plant roots, where fish were hiding, the clicks grew very fast; when he learned that nothing was hiding in the roots, the clicks stopped.

In the back of the facility is a new Marine Mammal Center that features educational presentations on Sea Lions and Fur Seals. We were fortunate enough to meet Lindsay Oliveira, a trainer who spends most of her time with the seals. Lindsay told us about her two star seals Roxy and Lou. Roxy is 24 years old and the grandmother/ matriarch of the group. Lou is four years old and madly in love with Roxy. “He doesn’t do anything without her,” said Lindsay. Every seal in the program has been rescued from life threatening conditions or was born in captivity. Lou was found in Santa Barbara, California with an eye that had been gouged and an injury that had left him unable to catch food.

When you have seen every exhibit, experienced every interactive element, caught a kiss from a cownose ray or sea lion, you will want to stop by the sustainable and certified Harbor View Cafe located at the aquarium. We have never recommended an aquarium or animal sanctuary eatery before now, but this little cafe is surprisingly good. Try a southwest burrito bowl, a cup of fresh New England clam chowder, or a grilled turkey panini.