Belle Isle Aquarium to reopen next week with new habitats, creatures

Ben Wilson
The Detroit News

When the oldest aquarium in the country reopens its doors next week, visitors will be greeted with $1.2 million in upgrades that include new species and habitats. 

The Belle Isle Aquarium shut down in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic and in the past 16 months has undergone a series of improvements, including upgrades to signage and glass for animal habitats, lobby repairs and the addition of axolotl salamanders known as a "walking fish" and garden eels.

The aquarium, located on the island park near Detroit's downtown, will welcome visitors again from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday through Sunday, beginning July 16.

Detroit Public School teachers Kimberly Finley (left) and DaJuanna Travier look at the black spot piranha during a sneak peek at the improved Belle Isle Aquarium as a modernization project has after 16 months of closure.

The improvements were shown off Thursday during a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by some Detroit school teachers and officials of the Belle Isle Conservancy, a nonprofit group that acts as a steward for the aquarium and other iconic sites within the 982-acre park.  

“What you're able to see in the gallery is the final result of countless hours of tinkering," said Danielle Jackson, the conservancy's director of events and communications.

Designed by Detroit architect Albert Kahn and opened in 1904, the aquarium has welcomed generations of visitors to learn about and observe fish and other sea creatures. It features a long hall with tanks lining each wall. The natural lighting from the skylights is supposed to give the feel of being underwater. 

A refinished and improved pagoda is the centerpiece of the improved Belle Isle Aquarium after 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 as a beloved attraction for generations.

The aquarium welcomed 174,000 visitors in 2019, according to figures in Belle Isle's 2020 fiscal year report. That's up from 29,795 in 2012.

While the doors were shut for over a year, staff worked throughout the pandemic to repair and improve the facility, said Belle Isle Conservancy President and CEO Michele Hodges, who praised her staff for their hard work. 

The aquarium has 50-plus tanks filled with aquatic species from all over the world.

“They came here every single day to keep these animals healthy, viable, and well,” Hodges said. 

This wasn’t the first time the aquarium closed its doors. In 2005, it closed due to economic difficulties and didn’t reopen until September 2012 when the Conservancy took it over. Over $12 million has been invested across Belle Isle by the group since.

Conservancy staff noted during Thursday’s event that their efforts are successful because of partnerships including with Detroit’s public school teachers. In 2019, the aquarium saw 2,500 visitors on school-related trips.

“All of us here at the Belle Isle Conservancy want to be a support to our educators and support to our community,” said June Teisan, the conservancy's school programs coordinator.

During quarantine, the aquarium team made the most of students being stuck at home by offering virtual field trips.

“It filled up in a 12-hour period,” she said. “So clearly there's a need for teachers to have this as a resource.”

Offering field trips again in the fall is a goal for the team. 

“We hope to support teachers with in-person field trips,” Teisan said. “That is where our heart is. We have missed spending time with those great students.”

Detroit Public School teachers Robin Crawford (right) and Theresa Finklea get a tour of he improved Belle Isle Aquarium.

But students won't have to wait for school to start in the fall to visit the fish, eels, and frogs on Belle Isle. They can visit next weekend. 

“There's nothing that brings me greater joy than to see people back in our aquarium,” Hodges said. “And the fish feel that way too, I can assure you that.”