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Baltimore’s Grand Experiment – The “Fish Tank” 32 Years Later

Published August 10, 2013

by Sarah Elfreth, Government Affairs Director

*Special thanks to Senator Ben Cardin, whose idea served as the inspiration for this blog post. 

Baltimore’s National Aquarium celebrated its 32nd birthday on Thursday – officially unveiling the new $13 million Blacktip Reef exhibit in a style that invoked the iconic image of William Donald Schaefer wading into the seal tank while wearing a 1920s bathing suit and carrying a rubber duck on August 8th, 1981. Thirty-two years later, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and National Aquarium CEO John Racanelli risked the shark-infested waters for Thursday's ribbon cutting, officially ushering in a new era of exhibits at the “crown jewel of the Inner Harbor.”

mayor anniversary photo

As anniversaries often do, the commemoration of another successful year offers an opportunity to look back at where things began and how far they have come. It is easy to forget that when the concept for an aquarium in Baltimore’s then-sparse waterfront was first proposed there were those who vehemently opposed its founding and the public support that helped fund its construction. Yet since breaking ground in 1978, the Aquarium has proven that it’s not the floundering fishbowl people imagined, but rather a deep sea of success. Nearly 50 million people have walked through our doors. Of them, 2.5 million Maryland students have been inspired by the 16,000 animals from more than 650 different species that call the Aquarium home. The National Aquarium remains the number one tourist attraction in Maryland with nearly 1.4 million visitors every year. And a recently completed economic impact study  concluded that the Aquarium is responsible for $314 million worth of economic impact and an additional $19 million fiscal impact on the City and State every year.

Given this tremendous contribution to the state, it is almost hard to believe that the National Aquarium was once decried as "frivolous" and just one of the Mayor's "pets" during the contentious debate over the bond referendum to help fund the Aquarium in 1976. Critics worried that attendance would be low and the resulting reduced revenue would not be enough for the experiment to be self-sustaining (in fact, the Aquarium only planned to host 600,000 people – instead it saw 1.6 million visitors in its first year). Finally, opponents argued that the presence of such a project would not be “essential” to the City of Baltimore.

While I was not alive to witness this debate or Mayor Schaefer’s infamous plunge, a picture of him tipping his straw hat, eyes staring up at the glistening glass pavilion he spent nearly a decade bringing to life hangs on my office wall. It reminds me on a daily basis that, national designation or not, we are still Baltimore’s Aquarium[1]. It was Mayor Schaefer and his Commissioner of Housing and Community Development, Robert Embry, who first dreamed up the idea to attract tourism to the Inner Harbor with an aquarium in the early 1970s. It was Baltimore City residents in 1976 who voted to fund the Aquarium’s construction via a bond referendum. And it was Baltimore’s native son, former U.S. Senator Paul Sarbanes, who led Congress to designate the new facility the “national aquarium” in 1979.

A day after Mayor Schaefer took his dive with an 800-pound seal named Ike, the Baltimore Sun opined: “On Pratt Street yesterday were crowds of people where crowds never existed before.” So here is to another 32 years. Another 50 million visitors. Another 2.5 million Maryland students. Thousands more breathtaking animals to visit. And hundreds of millions more economic and fiscal benefit to the City and State.

Happy birthday, National Aquarium! Apart from crab cakes and the Orioles, I can’t think of another symbol that is more “essential” to the City of Baltimore.


[1] The land and the buildings are owned by the City of Baltimore. The City of Baltimore funded most of the Aquarium's $21.3 million construction cost. Other major sources include: $7.5 million from City capital funds generated by the sale of Friendship (now Baltimore-Washington International) Airport to the State of Maryland; another $7.5 million from the 1976 bond issue referendum; and $2.5 million from the Economic Development Administration of the U.S. Commerce Department. The private sector contributed about $1 million.

National Aquarium intern and Towson University student, Kelsey Fielder, contributed greatly to the research and writing of this post. 

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Sarah Elfreth

Government Affairs Director

National Aquarium - Sarah Elfreth

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