Belle Isle Aquarium fills more tanks, plans more improvements
In a tank to the right of the entrance at the Belle Isle Aquarium, an alligator snapping turtle from the lower Mississippi River leans on a rock in his water-filled tank and arches his head upward, waiting to be fed.
"We get asked all the time, 'Is your turtle dead?' because he'll sit there, motionless,’” said aquarium curator Paul Shuert.
For years, people may have thought the same thing about the aquarium itself was dead. Built in 1904, the aquarium, North America’s oldest, has seen its share of challenges over the decades and was shuttered for a seven-year period until it reopened in 2012.
But with its operations now securely in the hands of the nonprofit Belle Isle Conservancy, the aquarium continues to reinvent itself with new exhibits and structural improvements.
Forty-six of its 56 tanks are filled with aquatic species from all over the world, and the aquarium is gearing up to open a new tank with Mbu pufferfish from the Congo River basin. At least three more tanks will open this fall.
Meanwhile, more improvements are coming down the road, Shuert said: Better (and more) signage,, said Shuert; more species and possibly the reopening of a staircase passageway that once connected the aquarium to the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory next door, though that may take a while.
“We have come a long way over the last few years,” said aquarium director Summer Ritner.
Shuert said the aquarium, largely run by volunteers and open to the public only on weekends, now is on track to have all its tanks filled by next summer. Two of the biggest improvements over the last six years, a new water reservoir system and an electrical system upgrade, mean tanks no longer have to be manually filled with city water (staff had to wait for chlorine to evaporate before adding it).
“Now each tank, above it, has a little spigot,” Ritner said. “You just open the spigot and water comes into it. The water has already been cured so there’s no chlorine or anything else. Those are really big things.”
The aquarium’s renaissance comes as the Detroit Zoo pursues the possibility of building its own much larger, new aquarium on the riverfront downtown. Earlier this spring, zoo director Ron Kagan said a plan to build a downtown aquarium has been in the works for 20 years and it can move forward now that the city is out of bankruptcy.
Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has questioned the location of a new aquarium. Ritner said as far as she knows, there are no plans between the conservancy and the Detroit Zoo to collaborate on a new aquarium. She said she’d welcome a new one run by the zoo, but the “Belle Isle Aquarium is a different thing.”
“It can never be reduplicated,” Ritner said. “It’s its own special thing — not just for the fish, but the education and the building.”
Zoo spokeswoman Patricia Mills Janeway said there are no plans to collaborate with the conservancy on the current or a future aquarium.
“Regarding a proposed riverfront aquarium, we’re still doing our homework and have made no decisions,” she said.
Detroiter David Heineman is credited with making the Belle Isle Aquarium a reality. In 1890, he visited the Naples Aquarium in Naples, Italy, and thought his city “would be a great location for a Great Lakes Institute,” according to signs at the aquarium.
He lobbied for the project, and in 1899 Detroiters voted to build the Belle Isle Aquarium and Horticultural Building. It opened Aug. 18, 114 years ago.
The building was designed by legendary architect Albert Kahn. And while many assume the trademark beautiful green tile that covers its interior walls is from Pewabic Pottery, it’s not. It’s opalite glass tile.
For the seven years the aquarium was shuttered to address a massive budget deficit, its tanks sat empty.
Since the aquarium reopened — it now relies on donations, grants and foundations to cover its $500,000 annual budget — there have been a series of improvements: skylights were reopened, the glass tile was patched and repaired, and period-appropriate lighting was installed (recreated from an old aquarium postcard).
“For us, the balance we’ve tried to strike is continuously opening tanks to engage visitors and for our educational programming but also doing so in a way that we’re also updating the technology,” said Ritner.
Shuert said when he came on board roughly two years ago, there were many infrastructure issues.
“There was a major renovation done in the ’50s,” Shuert said. “And I think in the ’70s, there were some minor renovations and changes, but it’s still an old aquarium and needs a lot of work.”
The new MbuCQ pufferfish exhibit — which will be celebrated with a fundraising event Thursday at the aquarium with Congolese artifacts, an African drum and dance ensemble and food — marks the third tank reveal in what the aquarium is calling its Deeper Dive: Into the Congo series.
A team of volunteers worked to created an aquarium habitat that will mimic what the MbuCQ puffer have in the Congo River basin.
The aquarium is divided into several themes for the species it carries: Africa, South America, Great Lakes and rivers. Shuert said 90 percent of its tanks are freshwater because salt water is more corrosive on pipes and infrastructure.
Some of the most popular tanks are those with familiar fish (think clownfish from “Finding Nemo”) but also those tanks with fish found in the Great Lakes, such as sturgeon.
Once all of its tanks are filled, Shuert said the goal is to start changing some of the tanks and exhibits. Ritner said the aquarium’s signage will better spell out the aquarium’s focus, which is the Great Lakes and rivers of the world.
The response from the public since it reopened in 2012 has been “incredible,” Ritner said. Visits are up from 29,795 in 2012 to 194,749 in 2017.
“We have so many folks who haven’t been there since they were kids and older folks who haven’t been there in decades, and the first thing that strikes you is just the building and the feeling,” Ritner said. “The building itself has held up really well and that strikes people. People are just so happy to see it back.”
Belle Isle Aquarium
- Free Admission
- Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays; weekdays reserved for field trips
- Deeper Dive: Into the Congo fundraiser from 5:30-7:30 p.m. Thursday to celebrate new Mbu pufferfish exhibit with Congolese artifacts, drums, dancing, food and more. Tickets are $25. Visit www.belleisleconservancy.org/deeperdive.