In 2005, Detroit-area residents mourned the closing of the city’s 101-year-old Belle Isle Aquarium and watched as beloved animals were dispersed to other institutions. A similar story recently played out in the nation’s capital, where National Aquarium, Washington, D.C. closed after 81 years of operation in the basement of the Department of Commerce building. This time, it will be the Belle Isle Aquarium on the receiving end.

The Belle Isle Aquarium reopened with limited hours in September 2012, under the newly formed Belle Isle Conservancy. Volunteers staffed operations on a shoestring budget over the following year as hundreds, sometimes thousands of visitors returned to the aquarium on Saturdays. Some volunteers visited similarly sized aquaria, including National Aquarium, Washington, D.C., to share information. This summer, they were saddened to learn that National Aquarium would close its doors on September 30.

According to Vance Patrick, one of the Belle Isle Conservancy directors and a leading figure in the aquarium’s reopening, “The National Aquarium in Washington, D.C. is a great institution that traces its roots to 1873. They unfortunately had to close their doors due to extensive building renovations. We deeply regret its closing, but it’s wonderful that they are willing to consider the Belle Isle Aquarium for reuse and recycling some of their equipment—which we sorely need.”

A group of Conservancy volunteers will travel to Washington, D.C. the week of January 12 in the hope of salvaging filters, tankscaping and other items that will find new life at the Belle Isle Aquarium. National Aquarium’s more than 2,500 animals have been transferred to its main facility in Baltimore as well as to other accredited aquariums and zoos.

“Opportunities like this do not come along often, we could not pass it up,” says Patrick. “This sort of recycling of equipment is in keeping with the natural spirit of Belle Isle Park, and reuse is vital to our frugal set up. Associations with others, like National Aquarium, are essential to our continued success” adds Jennifer Boardman, co-chair of the Aquarium Committee under the Belle Isle Conservancy.

A Detroit municipal park, Belle Isle is 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 implementation of improvements, master planning and public safety for the park.

Bud Denker, Senior Vice President of the Penske Corporation, is a member of the Advisory Committee. Denker has arranged for the use of a Penske rental truck, at no charge, to transport the salvaged equipment from Washington, D.C. to Detroit. “These cooperative partnerships are the key to making Belle Isle a world class park that’s an asset to the City of Detroit and the State of Michigan,” says Hodges.

In addition to its natural assets, the park features several historic structures including the Belle Isle Aquarium, which is the oldest aquarium in the United States. It opened in 1904 and was designed by Albert Kahn.

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 the National Aquarium, Baltimore and began jointly operating as one Aquarium with two venues. 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 optimistic 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

National Aquarium

National Aquarium is a nonprofit organization whose mission is to inspire conservation of the world’s aquatic treasures. It champions environmental initiatives by engaging with visitors, volunteers, education groups and schools to actively participate in the preservation of the world’s natural resources and living systems. National Aquarium delivers meaningful experiences through its living collections; science-based education programs and hands-on experiences in the field from the Chesapeake Bay to Costa Rica; and partnerships and alliances with like-minded organizations around the world. For more information on National Aquarium, visit


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