The Aquarium That Refused to Drown

You might think the New York Aquarium was down at the bottom of the long list of facilities needing rescue during Superstorm Sandy. Most of its residents came from the ocean and are used to swimming in turbulent waters, right?

Well, think again. The NY Aquarium, just off the Boardwalk on Coney Island, was the scene of one of the more desperate rescue operations during last fall’s mega-storm.

At 7:50 p.m. on Monday, Oct. 29 (they know the exact time because the clocks stopped), the Atlantic Ocean surged into the seven buildings that make up the 14-acre Aquarium complex in Brooklyn. The 20 staffers who run the place for the Wildlife Conservation Society were alerted by radio transmissions that the facility and the nearly 12,000 sea creatures that live there were facing an unprecedented crisis.

They didn’t have much time to act. Within three minutes of the first warning, the water rushed around sandbagged flood doors and surged through vents and ducts. The basements of the buildings quickly filled with up to 15 feet of saltwater. A minute later, the ground floors were flooded with up to three feet of surf. Electrical transformers were destroyed, plunging everything into darkness. Worse still, emergency generators failed, cutting off pumps and motors that ran life support systems for the fish, including oxygenation, filtration and heat.

The most vulnerable part of the Aquarium at that point was the Sea Cliffs building, which had numerous tanks and exhibits–many of which had open tops–in its basement. The Aquarium’s second-floor health center, which housed the only working generator, was immediately converted into the storm-recovery command post.

An eyewitness to the makeshift rescue operation already was housed in the health center–Mitik, a baby walrus orphaned in Alaska who had arrived at the Coney Island landmark just a few weeks before Sandy hit. According to a memorable report published in The New York Times, Mitik was found enjoying himself in the storm surge, swimming and flopping around like he was back in Alaskan waters. Others did not fare as well–about 150 koi carp were in temporary holding pools outside the Aquarium bacause their exhibit was being rebuilt; the storm surge knocked their pools over and the freshwater carp succumbed in the salty seawater.

Even though many of their own homes were damaged or destroyed by Sandy, Aquarium staffers worked round the clock to pump water out of the facility’s basements and get emergency generators hooked up. In anticipation of the storm, extra oxygen tanks had been ordered, and these were placed in the fish tanks and partially opened. The oxygen levels had to be checked every few minutes to make sure they were not too high or two low for the delicate fish.

Fortunately, electric power was restored before the end of the week and it wasn’t necessary to transport the residents of the Coney Island facility to aquariums from Boston to Baltimore that offered to take them in.

The fate of the 150 aquatic residents of the Sea Cliffs building (including rock fish, seahorses, eels and a giant lobster) was not determined until workers wearing chest-high waders were able to go down into the basement with flashlights the Friday after the storm hit. Amazingly, all of the creatures had survived, but they had a very close call: because the ocean water was much colder than the water in the tanks, it somehow ended up staying in one layer on top of the tank water, permitting the denizens of the tanks to congregate happily at the bottom of each. There was one exception: after the basement was pumped out, a three-foot-long American eel was found alive in a few inches of water at the bottom of a staff shower stall. According to the Times report, the relieved staffers immediately gave the eel a name: Lazarus.

We’re very pleased to report that, eight months after Superstorm Sandy devastated Coney Island, the Jersey Shore and surrounding coastal areas, the New York Aquarium has reopened. About $6 million was spent by the Wildlife Conservation Society on repairs and cleaning (the entire facility relied on generators until December, when full power was restored).

Because five of the Aquarium’s seven buildings were severely damaged during the storm, the reopened facility has been scaled down a bit (as have admission prices, from $14.95 down to $9.95). The Aquarium now houses about 6,000 fish, sea mammals and invertebrates from its previous collection; the other half–mainly from the Explore the Shore (electric eels, lungfish and blind cave fish, among others) and Alien Stinger (jellyfish and anemones) exhibits–have temporarily been moved to some of the Society’s New York zoos and to other aquariums.

A renovated Aquatheater with stadium seating, under construction when the storm hit, has opened on schedule with sea lions getting top billing. Summer camp and training programs for teenagers will go ahead as planned. A badly damaged cafe has been supplemented by food carts while repairs to the restaurant continue.

There’s more good news to come. All of the transplanted inhabitants will return to Coney Island when further repairs are completed at the Aquarium in 2016. They’ll be joined by some new members of the deep-sea family–some tough guys with big dorsal fins who will lurk in a huge new exhibit called Ocean Wonders: Sharks! As always, the Aquarium will be open year-round, bringing in an estimated $58 million annually in economic activity to Coney Island.

And here’s the best news of all: Mitik, the 400-lb. baby walrus from Alaska, soon will be getting some new friends. Mitik, a male, will be joined by two females, 1,850-lb. Nuka and Kulu, who apparently watches her figure and weighs in at only 1,278 lbs.

Mitik no doubt will impress his new girlfriends with an exciting story about the night he temporarily “escaped” from captivity and dove back into the ocean, which rose up to greet him.