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Our Story

The National Aquarium opened in 1981 as a nonprofit aquatic education and conservation organization, the jewel of Baltimore City’s Inner Harbor redevelopment. With a mission to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures, the Aquarium is consistently ranked as one of the nation’s two top aquariums and has hosted over 51 million guests since opening. It is Maryland’s largest paid tourist attraction, with more than 20,000 fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and marine mammals living in award-winning habitats.

Today, the National Aquarium builds on a 35+ year history of local, regional and global conservation initiatives that provide real solutions for protecting aquatic and marine life alongside human communities. We prioritize our work to focus on pressing issues in urban conservation, climate change and coastal resiliency, and ocean and human health, and advocate for smarter policies at local, state and federal levels. We have rescued, rehabilitated and released hundreds of marine mammals and endangered sea turtles throughout the Mid-Atlantic region; and are active participants in important research efforts. We educate over a hundred thousand students each year, helping to create the next generation of environmental stewards. . Through education, research, conservation action and advocacy, the National Aquarium is pursuing a vision to change the way humanity cares for our ocean planet. 

The National Aquarium is Maryland’s largest paid tourist attraction, with more than 20,000 fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and marine mammals living in award-winning habitats. A study by the Maryland Department of Economic and Employment Development determined that the Aquarium annually generates nearly $220 million in revenues, 2,000 jobs, and $6.8 million in State and local taxes. The Aquarium was recently named one of Baltimore’s Best Places to Work.

History of the National Aquarium

The nation’s first public aquarium was originally established in 1873 in Wood’s Hole, Massachusetts. In 1878, this aquarium moved to Washington, DC, to the site of the Washington Monument, and in 1932, was incorporated into the lower level of the Commerce Building. Federal funds were eliminated from the operating budget for the National Aquarium in Washington, DC, in 1982. Threatened with closing, the National Aquarium Society ® was formed to keep the Aquarium open.

Meanwhile, during the 1970s, then-Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer conceived and championed the idea of an aquarium as a vital component in the redevelopment of Baltimore's Inner Harbor. In 1976, Baltimore City residents voted on a bond referendum in favor of building an aquarium in Baltimore. Groundbreaking for the facility on Pier 3 took place on August 8, 1978. In 1979, the new aquarium was recognized by the United States Congress, which granted the facility "national" status. The National Aquarium in Baltimore opened to the public on August 8, 1981.

Buoyed by its success as a world-class attraction and developing center for science and education, the Aquarium embarked on its first expansion near the end of the decade. The pavilion on Pier 4 opened just in time for the holiday season in December 1990. In 2005, the Aquarium expanded by 65,000 square feet to include the new Australia: Wild Extremes exhibit.

In 2003, the National Aquarium Society ® Board of Directors signed an alliance agreement with the Board of Directors of the National Aquarium, Baltimore, enabling the two aquariums to work together to strengthen the exhibits and educational impact of the National Aquarium.

On September 30, 2013, National Aquarium, Washington, DC, closed its doors to the public, due to necessary renovations in the Department of Commerce. For more information about the closing and a future National Aquarium presence in Washington, DC, visit

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Our Positions on Key Issues

Our mission to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures cannot be achieved without research, public confidence in scientific fact and solutions-based climate change policies.

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