Coney Island’s New York Aquarium: Adapting and educating for an ocean friendly NY

I took the F train to Coney Island on New Year’s Day to pay a visit with some friends to the New York Aquarium. A long established institution with tired infrastructure, it was my first visit there since many new improvements began to take shape, most prominently in the form of a massive new exhibit, “Ocean Wonders: Sharks!”. The sheer size and hyper-modern architecture of the exhibit compared to its comparatively dated surroundings immediately signaled that this was the beginning of a radical change that would transform the aquarium I grew up with into something unknown. At first, I couldn’t help but compare it to the physical and cultural change that has spread over much of New York over the last ten or twenty years, during which the brick and limestone architecture of the past has been paved over for a future of towering chrome plated condos peppered with amenities. The new shark exhibit even has a rooftop bar! And for a moment the squawking penguins in the older and more humble exhibit next door almost resembled a group of disgruntled protesters rallying against such new developments in their neighborhood.

The new “Ocean Wonders: Sharks!” exhibit as seen from the Coney Island Boardwalk

Now I don’t think the penguins have anything to worry about. But the aquarium IS changing in a way that visually resembles many of the changes NYC has experienced in recent years, and it will not stop with this new shark exhibit. So as I walked from display to display, some questions came to mind: What are the driving forces behind this new development and the other changes taking place? What do they signal about the aquarium’s vision for the future and its mission as a center for the ocean? And are these developments simply an extension of the changes NYC has experienced, or something deeper and entirely its own? By the end of the day, I would realize that the comparisons with changes affecting the rest of the city were no more than visual. That in contrast to a world where the words “green” and “sustainable” are more often used as a fashion label rather than to effect real environmental action (see “greenwashing”), the aquarium’s new developments seem to arise from both a genuine desire to encourage a more environmentally friendly world, as well as out of a need to adapt to multiple pressures that may threaten its very survival.

Today, many aquariums face an uncertain future as controversial figures in marine conservation, and I was curious to see how the New York Aquarium has worked to position itself amid this issue. Aquariums face fierce criticism (often deserved) over concern about the well being of resident animals. This was especially popularized by the movie “Black Fish” that exposed the terrible health and living conditions of whales and dolphins at Sea World and other similar venues. Since then, Sea World has seen a precipitous decline in attendance and revenue. In addition to health concerns for the animals you see, aquariums can also have negative impacts on the environments from which many of the animals are taken. Such criticisms include use of marine resources as feed for animals, like the sardines or herring you see trainers feeding to dolphins and sea lions during shows that are important food sources for animals in the wild. Capture and removal of wild specimens can also be stressful or dangerous for individuals as well as the broader environments they come from.

Marine mammals like whales and dolphins are especially discouraged from being kept in captivity

The ethical question then becomes, can these negative impacts be outweighed by the benefits aquariums can provide as research centers, conservation advocates and practitioners, and education or outreach centers for the general public? First off, the New York Aquarium seems to have taken steps to minimize adverse impacts by no longer keeping marine mammals that use echolocation, like dolphins and whales, which are particularly sensitive to life in captivity. The Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the aquarium’s managing non-profit organization, has also been actively involved in research and conservation efforts around the world for decades for the betterment of the ocean. Some of the exhibits at the aquarium like Glover’s Reef showcase specific locations where WCS has worked in the past. But one area where the aquarium seems to be placing extra emphasis on today is in its role as an education and outreach center for the New York public. And I believe this role as an educational experience is needed here more than anywhere else in the country. NYC is the most populated city in the USA, and despite being on the coast, always seemed more culturally disconnected from the ocean to me than other coastal cities I’ve visited like Boston, Baltimore, and San Francisco.

But the New York Aquarium is poised to be a leader in educating New Yorkers in a way that could strengthen the city’s relationship with the ocean, and its recent additions are great at achieving this. As I walked through the new shark exhibit, there seemed to be just as much emphasis placed on interactive educational features as the life swimming behind the glass. Examples include several shrines to modern ocean health issues that I have become deeply familiar with during my time in graduate school for marine science, including climate change, ocean plastics, and overfishing. There’s a model restaurant showcasing ways visitors can help identify sustainable seafood at restaurants and grocery stores, and educate on the consequences of poor choices. There are moving images of garbage and plastic pollution that children can stomp on like a game of trash-pile whack-a-mole. The city certainly has enough garbage on the street for those kids to make the game a part of their daily lives, as it was during my childhood. But maybe one day these efforts could lead to a new generation that’s more responsible with waste than we are today. This educational focus the aquarium is taking also extends beyond the new shark exhibit. Nowhere more apparent than when Oswald, the sea lion performer in residence, slapped the recycling bin in frustration when his trainer tried to throw a plastic bottle in the garbage during feeding time.

Exploring the “Hudson Canyon” inside the new exhibit

But the most impressive direction that the aquarium has taken is a reinforced focus on marine life in the local NY area. Massive immersive displays, designed to resemble the Hudson Canyon just offshore from the city, dominate the new exhibit. The result is a viewing experience that brings the ocean closer to home, and thereby something that the average New Yorker can more closely connect with. Hopefully this will teach many visitors that our daily lives in this concrete jungle can and do have a major impact on some of the most impressive life in the ocean that swims only a few miles away. This type of impact is badly needed in New York, which as I mentioned feels so disconnected from the sea compared to other coastal cities in the country. And that disconnect needs to be bridged not just for the benefit of life in the ocean, but to also help visitors understand that the city’s own future is tied to the ocean in return.

Many experts and advocates have labeled New York City as one of the most vulnerable locations in the U.S. to the impacts of climate change. Threats include sea level rise, more extreme hurricanes bombarding the east coast, and of course the combined effect of the two that leaves much of the city in peril. But New York is no stranger to the potential devastation of such a future, much of the infrastructure here is still recovering from the impacts of Hurricane Sandy in 2012.

Coney Island, and the aquarium, was one of the areas hardest hit by Sandy, and the wound is still fresh. The opening of the “Oceans Wonders” exhibit is just the first major step in the rehabilitation and redevelopment of the aquarium, where many of the buildings and exhibits I cherished as a child have yet to reopen. At the aquarium, climate change not only threatens many of the species and environments on display in the wild, but also threatens to destroy the aquarium itself. And it is Coney Island’s physical relationship with climate change that puts the aquarium in a uniquely challenging position compared to other aquariums around the country. Not that other aquariums are not vulnerable, but the New York Aquarium has already faced terrible devastation and today still sits below the seaside boardwalk between it and the beach. But the aquarium and its leadership appear to stand resilient in the face of such dangers. The new exhibit is built upon a massive concrete foundation designed to withstand the type of wrath that Hurricane Sandy delivered. In this manner, the New York Aquarium is not just an educational tool to communicate issues like climate change, it also serves as a tangible reminder of its potential dangers, as well as a case example in sustainable adaptations to future impacts.

Aquarium parking lot after closing, January 1st, 2019

So while the New York Aquarium on Coney Island faces difficult challenges, it is also uniquely positioned to deliver powerful messages. The new developments feel like the beginning of a rebirth that intends to take advantage of that position, and they are a positive step towards the aquarium’s future, as well as ours and our relationship with the ocean. So at the end of the day, in lieu of something from the gift shop, I left for home with this message: when proper steps are taken like those at Coney Island, aquariums can effectively educate us about the ocean and the life within, serve a reminder of the dangers we pose to it (as well as ourselves), and provide us with the know-how to conserve it for future generations. I’m proud to see my hometown aquarium becoming a model in this regard that other aquariums can take lessons from, and I’m excited to see what comes next.

Working towards a Ph.D. at Stony Brook’s School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences, with a focus on economics of marine ecosystems and conservation finance.