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.
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.
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 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.
“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.
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.