A visit to the New York Aquarium: Seeing the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy

Bill Dennison ·
18 December 2014
Learning Science |     7 comments

As part of our collaborative Harbor School project with the Billion Oyster Project--Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) team, I visited the New York Aquarium in December 2014, two years following the devastation of Hurricane Sandy. The Aquarium is run by the Wildlife Conservation Society who also run four New York City zoos (Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, Queens Zoo and Prospect Park Zoo). I learned that the NY Aquarium, founded in 1896, is the longest running aquarium in the U.S. and they attract well over a half a million visitors per year.

Entrance to New York Aquarium along the Coney Island boardwalk.
Entrance to New York Aquarium along the Coney Island boardwalk.

We were given a tour of the facilities by Jon Dohlin, Director of the New York Aquarium and we brainstormed with Jon's education staff about how the aquarium could provide a public face to the educational program we are developing. Our team included Sam Janis from the Harbor School Foundation who is spearheading the NSF project, Dr. Matt Palmer, an urban ecologist from Columbia University, and Elisa Caref from the River Project, a small, education-focused aquarium on the Hudson River.

Sam Janis, Matt Palmer, Bill Dennison and Elisa Caref on the Coney Island boardwalk in front of the New York Aquarium.
Island boardwalk in front of the New York Aquarium.
Sam Janis, Matt Palmer, Bill Dennison and Elisa Caref on the Coney

The New York Aquarium is located directly on the Coney Island boardwalk in Brooklyn, which was essentially Ground Zero for the storm surge associated with Hurricane Sandy which struck New York on 29 October 2912. The NY Aquarium seawater tanks were overtopped with seawater, but a surprising number of marine mammals and fish stayed in their tanks and aquarium staff were able to keep them alive by heroic post storm efforts. Some of the life support systems were maintained with generators and staff even resorted to bubbling oxygen directly into tanks. We saw a 35 year old walrus, curious seals and sea lions that were in exhibit space that had yet to be restored. Parts of the aquarium are fully restored, and it was a striking contrast to walk from behind the scenes in the construction areas to the areas open to the public. About half of the NY Aquarium is restored, and various building projects are currently underway, including a large set of shark tanks being built. It was gratifying to learn that the NY Aquarium chose to "get out of the cetacean business" many years ago, especially in light of the current controversy over Sea World and orcas in captivity.

Shark tanks under construction at the New York Aquarium.
Shark tanks under construction at the New York Aquarium.

Fortuitously, a group of students from the Harbor School were visiting the Aquarium when we were visiting. One of the Harbor School programs of study is scuba diving, and during the winter months when conditions in New York harbor are too extreme, the students practice their scuba skills in the large tanks of the New York Aquarium. We watched them scrub the algae growing on the coral reef exhibit as the fish swam around them. A large green moray eel left its cavern and swam around the divers, much to their amusement. Recalling how I learned to dive in sterile swimming pools and frigid, dark waters of quarries of Ohio, I was envious of their program! I would have loved to learn to dive in a coral reef tank in the New York Aquarium.

New York Harbor School students and a large moray eel in New York Aquarium coral reef exhibit.
Aquarium coral reef exhibit.
New York Harbor School students and a large moray eel in New York

We discussed the development of an oyster reef exhibit to a) show the public the biodiversity and biofiltration of a large, intact oyster reef ecosystem, b) provide a place for students in the Billion Oyster Project to investigate New York Harbor and oysters while showcasing their results. One of the ideas was to have an oyster reef display with a public side and an educational laboratory side. The public could look through the display to watch the students making measurements and observations.

To cap off our tour, we walked out onto the Coney Island boardwalk to view a spectacular sunset over New York Harbor. We reflected on the exciting potential that an interactive exhibit at the New York Aquarium offered in engaging a broad audience in the Billion Oyster Project. While it was tragic that Hurricane Sandy had so devastated the aquarium, it provided us a timely opportunity to help redesign some of the exhibit space in such an iconic location.

Sunset over New York Harbor from Coney Island.
Sunset over New York Harbor from Coney Island.

About the author

Bill Dennison

Dr. Bill Dennison is a Professor of Marine Science and Vice President for Science Application at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science (UMCES). Dr. Dennison’s primary mission within UMCES is to coordinate the Integration and Application Network.

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  • Joshua 7 years ago

    Absolutely love eels, especially brightly colored ones like that yellow moray. It may be a bit past due but I'm glad to hear about older aquariums that can rebuild themselves such as this one.

  • Jess Canadian 8 years ago

    This hurricane was rough, glad to see that the aquarium is getting back to work. I am thankful to all the staff who went out of their way to protect the animals, just shows you how seriously they take their jobs.

  • Edward 6 years ago

    Yes, I've been there too.. Very interesting place, especially for all those who love the underwater life and aquarium fish.

  • Rob 8 years ago

    It was a very nice gesture on your part, Bill. I've been to The New York Aquarium many times and was absolutely saddened to hear about the impact of the Hurricane Sandy on it.

  • Bob 6 years ago

    Glad I stumbled upon this touching article while looking for information on my next trip. I'll be going to the NY Aquarium for the first time, and my expectations are now up to the roof! Thanks, Dr. Dennison.
    Wish you all the best, Bob.

  • Linda 7 years ago

    I’ve been 2-3 times to The New York Aquarium and I really love to learn to dive in a coral reef tank in here.

  • Ed 6 years ago

    The New York Aquarium sounds like an awesome way to better get to know the underwater world! And for someone who enjoys a fishkeeping hobby this is a really great opportunity to do what they love while at the same time helping out in thier community.

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