Okeanos Group got a chance to speak with a Dave Sigworth, the publicist for The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk. I can tell you — as an actual Norwalk resident, it was exciting to talk about this beautiful aquarium, which is only a short walk from the Atlantic coast.
What makes Connecticut’s Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk stand out?
The Maritime Aquarium is somewhat unique among public aquariums in that we focus primarily on just one body of water: in our case, Long Island Sound, the Congressionally designated “Estuary of National Significance” just outside our doors. With only a few exceptions, all the animals exhibited in the Aquarium are native to the Sound and its watershed.
Our hope is that in seeing & appreciating these creatures, visitors will be inspired to be better stewards of the animals’ environment when they’re back home. (Because all of Connecticut is within the Long Island Sound watershed, the majority of our visitors have a daily role in the Sound’s well-being.)
One of the other nice features of The Maritime Aquarium is that it was designed to be “intimate,” so that visitors can get really close to the exhibited creatures.
Do visitors seem to have a favorite exhibit or animal?
The harbor seals, the sharks (two species: sand tiger and lemon), the river otters and the green sea turtles are probably the visitors’ favorites. Also very popular are the Intertidal Zone Touch Tank and our new “Sharks & Rays Touch Pool.”
Wait, wait — You let kids touch sharks? Do children typically leave the aquarium with all 10 fingers?
They do. The species of sharks in the “Shark & Ray Touch Pool” are comparatively docile. We don’t, however, let anyone touch the bigger sharks in our “Ocean Beyond the Sound” exhibit. But you should know that divers do go into the big exhibit three times a week and even talk to visitors while they’re in there about our misconceptions about sharks.
From the caretakers’ side of things, what exhibit or animal is the most demanding to care for?
Probably the jellyfish. It may be surprising that a simple animal with no brain, heart, lungs, gills – none of the organs you think an animal needs to survive – requires the most care.
Jellyfish are actually a type of zooplankton, which is defined as organisms that cannot swim against a current or tide. In a normal aquarium exhibit, jellyfish would be sucked into the filtration systems. Also, bubbles – typically added to fish tanks to put dissolved oxygen into the water – can damage the jellies’ bodies. So jellyfish require special display tanks made just for them.
Also, because jellies are seasonal in the Sound, we can’t go out and collect them for display year-round. Instead, we have to “culture” them to always have them on display.
All the effort is worth it, though. Jellies are fascinating to watch. They’re like living lava lamps.
How does the aquarium decide what organisms belong in the same tank? Is it difficult getting so many creatures to coexist?
Many of our exhibits re-create the different bottom habitats in the Sound – sandy bottom, muddy bottom, pilings, etc. The animals displayed in these exhibits are the creatures that are adapted to live in these different habitats. So that’s the first step: who lives together, naturally, in the wild?
But we wouldn’t stock an exhibit with predator and prey. Through trial and error, and 24 years of experience now, our animal husbandry staff has a pretty good idea of what animals can coexist in an exhibit. But they do still surprise us sometimes.
Do you have any interesting stories or fun facts about the aquarium?
Our best recent story happened last August. First a little background: the Aquarium sits right on the Norwalk River, and our seal exhibit is an indoor-outdoor habitat. Well, on this particular nice August afternoon, a deer swam across the Norwalk River and came up onto our courtyard. (Deer are good swimmers.) The deer apparently saw a low wall and decided to jump it, not knowing that it was leaping into our seal exhibit! To make it even better, the deer jumped in while one of our public seal feedings was going on inside. The visitors alerted the aquarist, who got the whole animal-husbandry department involved.
We knew the deer would stay outside because, while deer are good swimmers, they don’t dive and it would have to dive to get into the indoor portion of the exhibit. So we kept the seals inside to prevent them from getting nicked by a hoof. It took about a half-hour but we finally managed to help the deer get its footing on a hastily added ramp and then our assistant curator of animals pulled it by the scruff of its neck the rest of the way out. The deer quickly ran back to the river and swam away.
We kept the visitors inside too, to lessen the stress on the deer and to give our staff room to work. But the visitors watched intently through the windows and even shot some video.
We understand the aquarium went through a “refurb-fish-ment.” Can you tell us a bit about it?
Sure. In April, we completed our $4.5 million “FINtastic RefurbFISHment,” which features a transformation of the permanent galleries and the addition of a new Sharks & Rays gallery with a large “Shark & Ray Touch Pool” as its centerpiece. It’s the largest transformation of the Aquarium since 2001.
• The Aquarium’s colorfully redesigned main hall has been renamed Newman’s Own Hall in celebration of a $1.2 million grant from Newman’s Own Foundation, a longtime Aquarium supporter. Newman’s Own Hall features an interactive introduction to the Sound dominated by a 36-by-12-foot map – an image about the size of a school bus. Visitors can use digital kiosks to play “Found in the Sound,” a game about the Sound’s marine animals and habitats. Answers light up on the giant map.
• The new Sharks & Rays gallery, with the “Shark & Ray Touch Pool.” Visitors can gently run their fingers down the backs of several species of these prowling predators. Other displays let you see sharks before and after they’re born, and explore why sharks are so fascinating.
• Dynamic new presentations of the exhibits in the aquarium galleries.
• And an all-new seal show that has the seals being rewarded for some entertaining natural behaviors.
Does the Aquarium have any special summer plans?
We do! We’ll be displaying one of the rarest animals in the world: an albino alligator. Of the estimated 5 million ’gators in the U.S., fewer than 100 are white and we’ll have one of them on exhibit from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
Also, it’s important to note that the Aquarium has the largest IMAX movie theater in Connecticut, with a screen that’s six stories high. We have a great new film for the summer, called “To the Arctic,” which follows a mother polar bear as she tries to raise her twin cubs in a harsh environment that is melting out from under them.