Making a splash: Belle Isle Aquarium and Conservatory reopening

Erica Hobbs
Special to The Detroit News

After more than a year of closures due to COVID-19, Detroit’s Belle Isle Aquarium and the island’s Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory are reopening to the public, showcasing renovations, as well as new plants and exhibits.

“It was very clear that we needed to utilize this time and leverage it to enhance the experience, so when it was time to reopen, we could do so with a splash,” said Michelle Hodges, president and CEO of Belle Isle Conservancy.

Those enhancements include $1.2 million in improvements to the aquarium, including upgrading exhibits, stabilizing critical life support systems and modernizing infrastructure. While most of the changes are behind-the-scenes – like electrical system upgrades and a new water testing system – visitors will notice marked improvements when they enter the building.

To start, the lobby of the nearly 117-old Albert Kahn building – the oldest aquarium in the country – has been restored, thanks to support from the Louisa St. Clair chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution. Water leaks had damaged the plaster, and the repairs required stripping layers of built-up paint, revealing gold leaf and woodwork that had been covered up. Restorers analyzed paint samples to re-create the entryway’s original 1904 design. 

Detroit Public School teachers Robin Crawford (left) and Theresa Finklea check out some exotic fish during a sneak peek at the improved Belle Isle Aquarium, following 16 months of closure and a modernization project. Designed by famed Detroit architect, Albert Kahn, and opened on August 18, 1904. It is the oldest aquarium in the country.

Several new animals have been added to the aquarium, including axolotls, critically-endangered Mexican salamanders that are similar to the mud puppies found on Belle Isle. Summer Ritner, Belle Isle’s chief operating officer and director of the Belle Isle Aquarium, said the exhibit is a lesson in sustainability.

“We’re trying to make that connection of clean waterways and how animals are affected,” she said. “They’re also adorable.”

Garden eels are another addition. The fish, which are only a few inches in length, poke up vertically from the sand. Though they’re only a few months old, they’re not expected to get much bigger, said Ritner. 

The garden eels are part of the aquarium’s brand-new saltwater section. Curator of the Belle Isle Aquarium Paul Shuert, Ph.D., said there weren’t many saltwater exhibits before, and now they cover the whole back alcove with animals like mantis shrimp, scorpion fish and some that haven’t arrived yet.

“We’ve totally replaced everything there,” he said. “It’s all going to be new and fresh for everybody.”

Black spot Piranha swim in their new enclosures during a sneak peek at the improved Belle Isle Aquarium, following 16 months of closure and a modernization project. Designed by famed Detroit architect, Albert Kahn, and opened on August 18, 1904. It is the oldest aquarium in the country and has served the Detroit community for generations.

Existing animals have also benefited from the renovations. Tanks underwent thorough inspections and got upgraded filtration systems and enhanced landscaping, as well as repairs like new glass, when needed. 

“We’ve really almost touched every single tank in here in the last 16 months,” Shuert said. 

New, interpretive signage is another significant upgrade to the aquarium, which Ritner said the aquarium staff previously made themselves.

“The signage really helps people easily make a connection between, basically, ‘why is this interesting?’” she said. “This is a very big upgrade for us, and I couldn’t be happier with it.”

The conservatory, managed by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR), had a soft re-opening last Friday and has also undergone some changes. Head Horticulturist Jeremy M. Kemp said new plants have been added, including the Cashew Tree, the Jackfruit Tree and the Champak Magnolia. He said the building – another 1904 Albert Kahn design – also got some upgrades, including a refinished floor in the lobby, enhanced safety precautions in the walkways and new ornamental gates in the fernery and tropical house. 

“We were able to check a bunch of little but very necessary projects off our list during the closure,” he said. 

Detroit Public School teachers got a sneak peek at the improved Belle Isle Aquarium, following 16 months of closure for a modernization project. Designed by famed Detroit architect, Albert Kahn, and opened on August 18, 1904. It is the oldest aquarium in the country.

Belle Isle Aquarium

10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Friday – Sunday.

The Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory

open from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. every Wednesday – Sunday.