Sabina Espinosa, the eight-year-old daughter of Santiago Espinosa of Long Island, says that touching a “sea star” (this is what Sabina calls a starfish) was her favorite activity at the New York Aquarium in Coney Island. She and her two-year-old sister clapped and laughed during the sea lion show, too. But after a short hour and a half in the aquarium they were already sitting down on their father’s lap, ready to head home, and not because they were simply tired. The problem? There is just not much to see at this time at the aquarium. Another visitor, Kevin Lett, a 37-year-old Queens resident, puts it this way: “I thought there would be much more.”
As it stands today, close to the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy—which hit Coney Island and the whole eastern seaboard of the United States in October 2012—a large part of the New York Aquarium, located at 602 Surf Avenue in Brooklyn, is still undergoing reconstruction.
According to the estimates of the visitors The Brooklyn Ink interviewed, only 30 to 50 percent only of the pre-Sandy aquarium is now open to the public. Billy Burke, an owner at Paul’s Daughter restaurant, which is that’s around 600 feet down the boardwalk from the aquarium, says, “It’s just 40 percent open.”
How does the aquarium inform its visitors about the reconstruction and what impact, if any, does the reconstruction make on the local businesses and community? The Brooklyn Ink went to find out.
There is no mention of what part of the aquarium is open on the aquarium’s website or at the physical site of the aquarium’s ticket booth. The aquarium’s slogan “Support—Rebuild—Transform” and large posters around and inside the aquarium’s site do signify that the reconstruction is under way. However, some visitors are not pleasantly surprised with the actual scope of the reconstruction, once they are already inside of the aquarium.
Stephanie Gotliev, a 47-year-old New Jersey resident and a mom to two boys, 10 and 13, says, “I didn’t notice anything on the outside. It would be good to let people know that the aquarium is going through the reconstruction. It seems that the aquarium is two thirds of what it was.” Gotliev, who reactivated her membership this year with the Wildlife Conservation Society, which owns the New York Aquarium, says that the membership price is worth paying, since the family takes advantage of the membership by of going to other parks under the Wildlife Conservation Society’s umbrella, including the Bronx Zoo, the Central Park Zoo, the Prospect Park Zoo, and the Queens Zoo. Gotliev does not recall receiving any electronic updates from the organization about the reconstruction of the aquarium and suggests, “They have to notify the visitors at the entrance and have a half-off admission or something, once the aquarium fully reopens.”
Collet Mason, a Brooklyn resident and a mom of two kids, aged 7 and 13, says, “Only when I got here, I found out that it was under reconstruction.”
The wall that separates the open part of the aquarium from the reconstruction zone itself represents an attraction of sorts. Within the aquarium area, signs point to the reconstruction wall, saying, “Find out how we’re rebuilding after Sandy.” When visitors get to the long blue wall, they can read up on the damage that Sandy brought in 2012 and learn about the plans for an expanded aquarium reopening. According to official PR reports from the Wildlife Conservation Society, “The devastation was so severe that much work still needs to be done to fully restore the aquarium. Parts of the aquarium remain closed because damaged electrical and life-support systems critical to maintain animals need to be replaced.”
According to an unidentified aquarium employee, who asked not to be named since he’s not allowed to speak to the press, “People complain all the time that there is not enough open.” The source continued, “I’ve heard that the original plan was to reopen the aquarium prior to summer 2014, but now the reconstruction is taking longer.”
What is the publicly communicated timeline for the reconstruction? In May 2013, the aquarium had partially reopened, seven months after Hurricane Sandy. In January 2014, the groundbreaking for the new expanded shark-tank, or the “Ocean Wonders: Sharks!” exhibit, took place, with multiple City Council and Brooklyn officials present. Since January 2014, no new public statements have been issued on the Wildlife Conservation Society website with regards to the aquarium. When The Brooklyn Ink reached out to the PR department at the Society to learn more about the process and its challenges, the PR team declined the interview request via email, apologizing and saying, “We’re just very backed up with all that is going on here at the aquarium.”
Is there something fishy behind the slow reconstruction of the New York Aquarium?
Maybe not, but it’s hard to tell, as there does not seem to be much information available on the funding provided by the city or the private donors, on the size of the job yet to be done, or on the pace of the work.
Michael Sarrel, a co-owner at a nearby restaurant Ruby’s, says, “I don’t know what’s going on in the aquarium, but I do have experience with construction. Things take twice as long and twice as much.” Sarrel’s business was not impacted by the aquarium’s reconstruction. Sarrel sees it as a positive process and says, “Anytime there is work done in Coney Island, it brings more people to Coney Island.”
Burke, the owner at Paul’s Daughter, voices a similar opinion, “The reconstruction has not hurt me. I hope they go through with it.”
Meanwhile, the ticket price for the aquarium is now $11.75, or $10.75 with an online discount, yet the official public press releases from May 23, 2013, and January 10, 2014, available on the official Wildlife Conservation Society’s website, list $9.95 as a price for anyone over three years of age. It is not clear whether the price has increased or whether the press releases communicated a wrong price altogether. According to Gotliev, the price did not drop when the aquarium was partially reopened after Sandy.
Some visitors of the aquarium are definitely upset with how much of the aquarium is still closed. Gotliev says, “I think my kids are a little bit disappointed, but what can you do? They are rebuilding it!” Marina Goktel, a Brooklyn resident, whose grandparents live steps away from the aquarium, says, “I don’t think the price is worth it. I look at it differently; for me it’s a donation. I would even pay more for a good cause.” Santiago Espinosa, with his young daughters, says, “Well, it’s missing a lot of things because of the hurricane. The price is O.K., but there is not much to see.”
Lett, who came to the aquarium on Friday after 4 p.m., when the admission price drops to $5, says, “The $5 is worth it, but for $15 if you come in the morning, it’s not that much to see.”
Sabina, Mr. Espinosa’s daughter, and her little sister cannot wait to see the sharks that will be in a new “Ocean Wonders: Sharks!” exhibit, slated to open in 2016. May 2016 is the deadline that Wildlife Conservation Society has communicated in publically available materials. According to the aquarium’s website, the reopening will include a “shimmer wall,” an installation that will resemble the movement of the ocean waves and will ‘transform’ the Coney Island’s skyline. The shimmer wall will contain more than 30,000 individual metal panels and will span over 1,100 feet. The aquarium has initiated an online donation initiative where people can buy virtual tiles. To date, more than $54,000 has been donated toward a goal of $100,000. With only a few days remaining until the end of the donation process, the goal seems not likely to be reached.
To Goktel, the reconstruction brings up the sad memories of Sandy. She says, “Construction sites are definitely in your sight, and it’s hard not to notice. I live in the neighborhood, and you remember the devastation.”
The New York Aquarium is definitely one of people’s favorite attractions at Coney Island. “We love this aquarium,” says Gotliev. She continues, “We’ve been to zoos all over the world. We’ve been to a number of aquariums. The Wildlife Conservation Society is amazing. I love what they do for education.”
Alayna Trickland, a 21-year-old resident of Orlando, Florida, whose visit to aquarium was a friend’s birthday present, says, “It was great, actually. We grew up in Florida, so we are used to the SeaWorld, so it was a little small, but still alright.” She and he friend Annie Mac, a 20-year-old resident of Westchester, Florida, had their favorite part of the exhibit. Mac says, “The show with sea lions was really awesome. We were dancing!” The girls enjoyed their trip and were understanding of the reconstruction process. Mac says, “Honestly, I don’t know what they are doing to understand how long it would take, but construction in general takes forever.”
Mason, the mom of two, enjoyed her trip to the aquarium a lot, says, “They are still very accommodating and it was still a lot of fun for me and the kids.”
She and the kids look forward to the larger aquarium’s reopening in 2016. Mason says, “I know that when they are don with the reconstruction, we will have a bigger and better aquarium.”
New York and the visitors patiently await for the grand reopening of the New York Aquarium in 2016.