40th Facts: How Well Do You Know the National Aquarium?
While some stories from the Aquarium's past have been told and retold, we're pausing on this momentous occasion to reflect on some of our hidden history from summer 1981 to summer 2021.
A lot can happen in 40 years. To celebrate our anniversary on August 8, we're sharing lesser-known facts about the Aquarium itself and the animals and people who have helped make it the special place you know and love.
"It's well known that Mayor William Donald Schaefer and a trip to Boston played a key role in the Aquarium's development," says Scott Perich, the Aquarium's director of long-range planning, "but the redevelopment of the Inner Harbor with a convention center, shops and an aquarium, as our origin story typically begins, was actually Plan B." In 1966, Baltimore City residents voted to create an Inner Harbor renewal plan to revitalize the industrial harbor with its aging piers and wharves. By 1971, designs for a federally funded public housing project called Inner Harbor West were complete. When that project's funding was cut in 1972, Baltimore pivoted, and Plan B began taking shape.
Initially, the Aquarium was going to be built between the Maryland Science Center and Harborplace Light Street pavilion, where the Baltimore Visitor Center now stands. Because of the proposed height and design of the Aquarium building, plans shifted to Pier 3. A groundbreaking ceremony was held on August 8, 1978, three years to the day before the grand opening.
An August 8, 1981, article in the New York Times about the National Aquarium's grand opening begins, "On a plaque, to set our thinking right as we begin, are the words of Loren Eiseley: ‘If there is any magic on this planet, it is contained in water.'" Loren Eiseley was an anthropologist, science writer, ecologist and poet. The quote—which is from his book, "The Immense Journey: An Imaginative Naturalist Explores the Mysteries of Man and Nature," published in 1957—still appears on a wall just inside the Aquarium's Main Entrance.
The enormous whale skeleton that hangs from the ceiling above what is now Blacktip Reef has also been part of the Aquarium since the start. The 150-year-old, 5,000-pound skeleton of a finback whale known as Omega is on permanent loan from New York State Museum in Albany.
The National Aquarium is a nonprofit organization, but its buildings and the piers on which they sit are owned by the City of Baltimore. The total construction cost of the original Pier 3 building, which was built without any federal funding, was $21.3 million. (The Marine Mammal Pavilion on Pier 4, which opened in December 1990, cost $35 million.) Records show that Aquarium leaders were hoping for 650,000 guests in the first year; they welcomed more than double that, with 1.5 million visitors between August 1981 to August 1982.
The Aquarium is usually only closed two days a year, Thanksgiving and Christmas. While the extended closure for COVID-19 in 2020 was the longest in the Aquarium's history, it wasn't the first. In November 1983, the Aquarium closed for three weeks so workers could address a condensation issue in the upper reaches of the Upland Tropical Rain Forest exhibit. More recently, the Aquarium was shuttered for two days following Hurricane Isabel in September 2003. The storm surge put the Aquarium's entire ground level under 2 feet of water, and there's a watermark on the wall inside the Staff Entrance on Pier 3 to prove it. Thanks to heroic efforts by staff—many of whom stayed at the Aquarium and former Animal Care Center in Fells Point overnight, traveling to and from both buildings by kayak—every single animal fared just fine.
There were 6,000 animals at the Aquarium when it opened; today, there are approximately double that number, with 100 more species represented in 2021 than in 1981. Some original species include puffins, eels, macaws, sloths and sawfish. (The Aquarium's first sawfish was a gift from BLACK+DECKER, a tool and home products manufacturer with Baltimore roots.)
While the outdoor seal pool on Pier 3 is long gone, today, lucky visitors touring the Animal Care and Rescue Center can sometimes catch a glimpse of a rescued seal being cared for by our Animal Rescue and Animal Health teams. The old seal pool now serves as an underground 40,000-gallon cistern that holds rainwater used for watering plants in the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Waterfront Park.
In 1990, the opening of our Marine Mammal Pavilion on Pier 4 allowed the Aquarium to expand its participation in the Northeast Marine Mammal Stranding Network. A baby seal found on a Virginia beach became the first animal rescued, rehabilitated and released back into the ocean by Aquarium staff in 1991. Last year, the Aquarium celebrated the release of its 300th rehabilitated animal, a Kemp's ridley sea turtle.
Dolphins were originally (and briefly) housed in what is now Blacktip Reef, which was also where a ray exhibit called Wings in the Water was located. Dolphin Discovery opened in the Marine Mammal Pavilion on Pier 4 in 1990. Plans are underway to move the dolphins again in the near future, this time to the National Aquarium's innovative, first-of-its-kind dolphin sanctuary.
In addition to more recent discoveries, including the ability of jellyfish to launch venom-filled mucus grenades and female swellsharks to reproduce asexually, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Aquarium played a role in the discovery that poison dart frogs get their skin toxins from the insects and other tiny arthropods they eat.
Over the years, the Aquarium has helped protect a variety of aquatic species, including the Maryland state reptile, the diamondback terrapin. Once commercially harvested in unsustainable numbers, the Aquarium and other groups formed the Chesapeake Terrapin Alliance and successfully fought for legislation to ban the turtles' harvest in 2007.
Mayor Schaefer is often seen as the father of the National Aquarium, along with Robert Embry, commissioner of the Baltimore Department of Housing and Community Development—but they certainly are not the only two. In 1977, Mayor Schaefer selected Frank Gunther as founding chairman of the National Aquarium Board of Directors—a role he held until 1983. An engaging civic leader, he established important and lasting partnerships between the Aquarium and Baltimore's business community, and his leadership spanned three decades. Today he serves as the Aquarium Board's life director.
Henry Hall, for whom the Aquarium's fellowship and summer camp education programs are named, was another important early Aquarium leader. A fish enthusiast and amateur aquarist, he helped rally public support and raise funds before the Aquarium opened, served as a consultant as it was developed, and donated animals worth more than $10,000 before the opening. According to a 1999 article in the Baltimore Sun, Henry Hall was a "brilliant and humble" boiler and air conditioning engineer who lived in the 400 block of Mosher Street in West Baltimore, where he kept aquariums in his basement. He was elected to the Aquarium's Board of Directors but died in 1979 before he was able to serve.
When the Aquarium first opened, there were 77 employees and 473 volunteers. Three of those employees remain on staff today—James Hebb, Ed Johnson and Richard Snader—as do three volunteers—Robin Korotki, Susan Magri and Barbara Weaver. (Stay tuned; we're publishing interviews with each of them soon on our stories page!)
Hidden in the mural Schaefer's Splash—which hangs near the Aquarium's Main Entrance and prominently features Mayor Schaefer, Frank Gunther and Deborah Walker dressed as a mermaid—is none other than Roy Rogers, the cowboy hat-wearing musician and actor after whom the fast-food restaurant chain is named. Roy Rogers attended the Aquarium's grand opening festivities, the first of many celebrities to visit the Aquarium over the years, including Liberace, who shared a tour with current Aquarium President and CEO John Racanelli, President Joe Biden, who visited when he was vice president, Jimmy Fallon, Danny Glover, Jane Goodall, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Malia Obama, Gwyneth Paltrow, Michael Phelps and many more.