A caravan of Belle Isle Aquarium volunteers returned late Tuesday, January 14, with a loaned Penske truck loaded with unique tank display material salvaged from the recently closed National Aquarium, Washington, D.C.
“We still need to sift through it all, but we think that this cargo will bring us light years closer to where we want to be as a public aquarium,” says Vance Patrick, one of the Belle Isle Conservancy directors and a leader in the effort to reopen the aquarium in Detroit after it was closed in 2005.
“It was a great adventure, and completely worth the journey. We called it our Aquarium Pickers Road Trip,” says Jennifer Boardman, Aquarium co-chair under the Belle Isle Conservancy. “We had about seven hours to identify and prioritize what we wanted to salvage, physically remove the displays, and load them in our truck. It was a challenge but our team was motivated to make use of every moment,” Boardman added. The volunteers arranged the trip when they learned National Aquarium, Washington D.C. was closing after 81 years of operation in the basement of the Commerce Department Building and that much of their displays might not be needed.
“Nearly all of the animals and much of the equipment went to National Aquarium, Baltimore, but we reached out and asked for a chance to salvage, recycle, and reuse tank display material they would not need. The response was incredibly positive. The folks at National Aquarium, Washington, D.C. and the Commerce Department were very generous and accommodating,” says Boardman.
"We're glad to see that National Aquarium, Washington, D.C., can contribute to a fellow conservation institution like Belle Isle Conservancy," said David Lin, National Aquarium, Washington, D.C., Director of Operations. "This is a wonderful opportunity for the legacy of our facility to live on as we discuss our future presence in the capital." It is hoped that a location can be secured for the eventual reestablishment of the National Aquarium in Washington, D.C.
The Belle Isle Aquarium reopened with limited hours in September 2012, under the newly formed Belle Isle Conservancy. Belle Isle is a Detroit municipal park currently undergoing a transition to become Michigan’s 102nd state park under a lease agreement made late last year. The agreement notes that the State of Michigan and the City of Detroit will work cooperatively with the Belle Isle Conservancy. Michele Hodges, the president of the Conservancy, chairs the recently formed Belle Isle Advisory Committee. The committee consists of city and state appointees that will advise the state on the implementation of improvements, master planning and public safety for the park.
“Our dedicated volunteers are doing a tremendous job as stewards of the Belle Isle Aquarium,” says Hodges. “It is because of their tireless efforts that the nation’s oldest aquarium is back open for the public to enjoy. Donations like the use of a Penske truck really help us stretch the Conservancy budget.”
The Belle Isle Aquarium originally opened in 1904 and was designed by the noted Detroit architect Albert Kahn. It is one of many historic structures on the island.
“While it’s great to have the Belle Isle Aquarium open again, we are the first to admit that many of our exhibits could use aesthetic improvement. We have been concentrating on repairing and restoring tanks that developed leaks during the seven years we were closed. Some of the tank scaping we salvaged from Washington, D.C. on this trip will greatly improve the visual appeal of many of our displays,” says Patrick. “It’s an excellent opportunity to reuse and recycle and to stretch our budget.”
National Aquarium, Washington, D.C. organized its collection around various United States marine sanctuaries and parks, including the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary and Underwater Preserve, near Alpena, Michigan. That exhibit featured a simulated hull of a freighter and was of particular interest to the volunteers. “The Belle Isle Aquarium has always been a showcase for Great Lakes species. We hope that the hull and other items we retrieved from that display can be adapted to our tanks,” says Boardman.
Another treasure is the simulated engine of a World War II-era plane that National Aquarium, Washington, D.C. displayed in an exhibit on artificial reefs as if it were wreckage on the floor of the South Pacific. “We see that as a fitting tribute to all who serve and the Detroit area’s role in the Arsenal of Democracy,” says Patrick. “It will take some work to get it in one of our tanks, hopefully we can find volunteers skilled at working with fiberglass.”
The histories of the two aquaria are somewhat similar. Washington D.C.’s aquarium lost its congressional funding due to budget cuts in 1982. Supporters formed a non-profit organization and kept it open. In 2003, it partnered with National Aquarium, Baltimore and they have been jointly operated ever since. The Belle Isle Aquarium closed to the public in 2005 due to city budget cuts. Supporters worked to reopen it and realized their dream in 2012. It is possibly the only volunteer-run public aquarium in the world.
For more information on the Belle Isle Aquarium and this successful salvage mission, contact Vance Patrick (586) 663-9482 or Jennifer Boardman (248) 302-7148, Co-Chairs of the Belle Isle Aquarium Committee.
For more information on the Belle Isle Conservancy, visit www.belleisleconservancy.org.