How we’re staying afloat at the New England Aquarium

Innovation and fortitude are key for vital cultural institutions  

THIS YEAR’S rapid-fire turn of events is stunning. Minute to minute, day by day, we face a new reality. It’s no different leading one of Boston’s most popular and beloved cultural institutions in the year when we planned to celebrate our 50th anniversary. Then, it all turned upside down. 

To give you a sense of the impact on local institutions, I want to share how the entire New England Aquarium has been affected by the pandemic. To do that, I want to talk about how the Aquarium is more than the beloved institution people visit on Central Wharf in Boston, and why. I’ll start with the why. 

The ocean is particularly vulnerable right now because of climate change and how we, as humans, use it. 

Through our research and our rescue arms—the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life and Animal Care Facility and the Animal Care Center and Sea Turtle Hospital in Quincy—we are working for a vital and vibrant ocean for generations to come. Through animal care and research, education, and advocacy, we safeguard endangered and threatened species and their habitats, inspire people to take action to protect the blue planet and work to affect state and federal policies that do the same. The Aquarium itself is one piece of a larger conservation organization; it just happens to be the most well-known one. 

On Friday, March 13, we closed the doors of the Aquarium to the public. Although closed for 18 weeks, we had about 35 staff members caring daily for our 20,000 animals and the infrastructure that supports them. In many ways, during those months, it was business as usual for the animals—just much quieter. 

When the pandemic hit, our scientists were just getting back on the water after a winter hiatus and preparing for their summer field seasons. Summer plans and any ongoing fieldwork stopped suddenly, although our scientists continued their research and to publish. 

Eventually, by August, our right whale research team—which has spent every summer for the past 40 years conducting research in the Gulf of Maine—quarantined as a family unit and headed north. One of our shark researchers drove from Maine to Key West towing a camper in order to stay socially distanced from others. And, our aerial survey team got back up in the air donning full flight suits and face masks. In our Sea Turtle Hospital, rehabilitation work continued for the handful of sea turtles rescued from the shores of Cape Cod in late fall and early winter still healing from bouts of hypothermia and related illnesses. (We had already successfully rehabilitated and released nearly 200 turtles.) By July, we quietly released the remaining turtles on uncrowded beaches at sunrise into the warm waters off the Cape. In years past, such releases were accompanied by great fanfare with cheering crowds. 

When we closed, we pivoted quickly to using social media to tell the stories about the ongoing care in the Aquarium, as well as our research and rescue work. Every weekday at 11 a.m., we broadcast “Virtual Visits.” Aquarists and scientists—formerly used to advancing their work quietly behind the scenes—suddenly became the stars of our Facebook page. We had our share of technical difficulties, but we continued educating and inspiring people with the wonders of the ocean online. Viewership skyrocketed. Countless families, teachers, and librarians told us how they were relying on our virtual visits to supplement at home learning. 

As time passed, we got the go-ahead to reopen on July 16, and did so at only 15 percent of building capacity. That makes for a wonderful Aquarium experience but not a sustainable business model. 

Still, we created one-way paths, implemented timed ticketing, and trained our staff on how to enforce mask wearing and social distancing guidelines among guests. We are delighted that people are comfortable and eager to come visit, and yet, like our peers, we missed late summer and early fall tourism. We see fewer guests during the week now that school is in session but are fortunate for sustained interest on weekends. We are losing money every month, even with our doors open. 

Most acutely, the pandemic has affected us financially. Like our counterparts at many zoos and aquariums, we rely on ticket sales and earned income, such as events, for most of our revenue—80 percent in our case. During our five-month closure, we lost $16 million in revenue. We had to make painful reductions and let go of valued, longtime staff members. We have had to become more innovative and agile, doing more with less. We started the Mission Forward Fund to raise critical dollars. About $3.8 million has been raised to date. 

Meet the Author

Vikki Spruill

President and CEO, New England Aquarium
Like the Children’s Museum and the Museum of Science, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Institute of Contemporary Art, we are part of the cultural fabric of this city. Along with the Greenway, the Harbor Walk, Christopher Columbus Park, and the North End, we help make the downtown waterfront welcoming and inclusive and vibrant. 

Our doors are open, our research continues, we’re preparing for another sea turtle rescue season, and we’re developing more and different virtual programming to serve the needs of individuals and families, as well as of teachers and schools. We are determined to make it to the other side of this pandemic because our blue planet, our city, and our region needs us. 

Vikki Spruill is president and CEO of the New England Aquarium. She shared these remarks as part of the October 5 webinar “A Better City Conversations: Cultural Institutions” alongside leaders of the Boston Children’s Museum and the Museum of Science.