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Nation’s Oldest Public Marine Aquarium Continues 150 Year Legacy

February 11, 2022

In celebration of our 150th anniversary, we are highlighting some of the things that make the Woods Hole fisheries lab and the village a special place. One of them is the Woods Hole Science Aquarium.

Man dressed in a suit with hat looks at one of the lighted tanks partially covering windows along the wall of the old fisheries aquarium. Hoods over the top of the tanks deflect light from the windows visible at top. Many other tanks fill the room, including a row of small open tanks across the aisle at the bottom of the open. White power cords hang down from the ceiling to each tank.

When Spencer Baird established the nation’s first fisheries lab in 1871 in Woods Hole, he also established a fisheries aquarium. That first aquarium was just a few small tanks with live fish and other animals. They shared a borrowed shed that served as temporary research facilities for the new U.S. Fish Commission.

Baird invited anyone interested to see what researchers were finding in local waters. Marine biology was in its infancy, and he believed it was important to explain what public support for government marine research was achieving and its importance to conservation.

As interest in Fish Commission operations grew, the borrowed space was no longer sufficient. In 1885, the first permanent fisheries laboratory and a residence hall were built. They were located at the corner of Water and Albatross Streets on Great Harbor in Woods Hole, on the site where current facilities now stand.

Baird’s vision and passion for research and education were evident in the new facilities, which he helped design. A much larger public marine aquarium was housed on the first floor of the laboratory building, across from the fish hatchery. There were 16 tanks for displaying local marine animals and plants. Large seawater tanks were mounted along the outside walls. Some of the tanks were used for research to study the life history of marine organisms, others to raise marine fish to augment wild populations. Preserved specimens of fish, invertebrates, and birds filled cabinets in the center. There was also space for educational displays and exhibits to help the public learn more about the sea.

When the Marine Biological Laboratory was founded across the street in 1888, summer students and researchers at the lab became regular visitors. The aquarium was open to the public every day during the summer months from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. These gave investigators at the lab a chance to visit the exhibits between breakfast and the start of morning classes and after dinner in the evening.

While the hours of operation have changed since those early days, the aquarium then as now was busiest in the summer season. Cloudy or bad weather days when people couldn’t go to the local beaches attracted the largest crowds. Daily logs were kept to keep track and feedback from visitors was encouraged. More than 1,000 people would visit the aquarium on rainy days and holidays.

Collaborating with Village Organizations

Initially, no funds were appropriated for the operation of the fisheries aquarium. Support for the operation for many years was voluntarily performed by the Woods Hole lab director and superintendent. His emphasis was on New England food fish and on invertebrates commonly found along the shores and used in the MBL classes and for research. Daily collecting trips on the small steamer Phalarope brought back specimens for laboratory research and live fishes for the aquarium.

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People of all ages crowd in to see what is in each tank at the new aquarium built in 1961. The tanks are displayed in a single row along a long wall.
Large crowds visited the new aquarium. built in 1961. Signs above the tanks describe what lives in each tank. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC Robert K. Brigham Historical Photo Collection

Interest in the aquarium as a research resource also came from the Children’s School of Science, founded in 1913 for children of researchers working in Woods Hole. Arrangements were made to use space in the old hatchery for the children to have their own tanks for keeping and monitoring the animals they collected.

Oyster researcher and sometime lab director Paul Galtsoff liked to mingle with the aquarium crowd and learn from their reactions to the exhibits and displays. He had designed some of them himself. “It was a surprise to find out how many college instructors in biology had never seen live dogfish, squid, or other common animals,” he wrote. “Some of them admired the graceful movements of the fish, the continuous color change of the squid, the sliding motion of starfish, and the brilliance of our common red sponge. Their previous acquaintance with these forms of life was only through the unattractive specimens preserved in formalin and used for dissection.”

Seals Were the “Darlings of Woods Hole”

The Woods Hole lab’s aquarium has always been a working research aquarium as well as an educational resource. Visitors would often see researchers about. Baird was a master at engaging people. He knew seals would attract visitors to the laboratory, where they would learn about marine research and see waterfront operations. It isn’t surprising, then, that the new laboratory building with its aquarium on the harbor included a large open seawater seal pool behind the seawall.

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View from the old laboratory building of the seal pool at the edge of the harbor. A hole was cut in the inside wall during demolition to make way for new facilities. Part of the stone jetty that made one of the walls of the old boat refuge and pier system is visible at top right.
A hole was cut into the wall of the seal pool during 1957 demolition to make way for new lab facilities. Photo: NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC Robert K. Brigham Historical Photo Collection

Every summer, two young harbor seals were kept in the pool, spending part of their days resting on a small raft. Large crowds gathered along the edges to see the seals. They would swim close by the sides of the pool to gather mackerel and other fish offered to them. Occasionally, sea turtles and large sharks were placed in the pool with the seals. This led to many discussions about sharks and human interactions and questions about why the seals were not afraid of them. At the end of the season, the seals were released to the wild.

In 1958, the old laboratory building with the aquarium and the neighboring residence hall were demolished. New modern buildings were erected on the same site. The new main laboratory opened in 1960. The new aquarium in a separate building opened nearby in 1961.

In spite of the very modest character of the aquarium, it attracted more than 200,000 visitors in the summer of 1961.Some local fishermen came regularly to see the exhibits. They always commented on the condition or rarity of the specimens they saw. Who knows how many of them became naturalists and conservationists as a result of these first impressions of life in the sea?

True to its Mission

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Researcher in white lab coat kneeling in front of three stacked rows of small fish tanks with wire covers weighted down by wooden studs with a shackle on top.
Aging studies on flounder were conducted in 1964 in the aquarium basement. They were among many research projects conducted by Woods Hole lab staff at the aquarium through the years. The space today is used primarily for turtle conservation studies and specimen quarantine. Photo: NOAA Fisheries/NEFSC Robert K. Brigham Historical Photo Collection

The aquarium has remained true to its mission of research, education, and conservation and that of its founder Spencer Baird, for the past 150 years. Today, approximately 85,000 people tour what is now the Woods Hole Science Aquarium every year. Since 2002, more than 1 million have visited from all 50 states and many foreign countries. There are 20 tanks displaying 140 species found in Northeast to the mid-Atlantic U.S. waters.

Along with changing tank exhibits and displays on lab research, new aquarium programs have been introduced through the years to further engage students and the public. Among them are:

  • Collecting walks for the public in local marshes during the summer
  • On-site visits by local and regional schools and special programs during the academic year
  • Summer internships for high school and college students
  • Volunteer opportunities year-round
  • Special one-day events, such as Endangered Species Day and the Woods Hole Science Stroll

Since the late 1980s, conservation efforts have focused on seals and more recently on sea turtles. Harbor seals unable to live in the wild have a permanent home in the pool in front of the aquarium. Their presence provides staff with an opportunity to educate the public about harbor seals and how humans should behave when they see them in the wild.

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 View from the street of the front of the Woods Hole Science Aquarium. Red brick covers the first floor wall, cedar shingles the second floor office level. A circular NOAA graphic element hangs above a decorated black whale sculpture in front of a red brick covered entrance. A fence surrounds the seal pool, with blue cloth sails for sun protection above the pool at different heights anchored by wires.
The Woods Hole Science Aquarium today. Photo: NOAA Fisheries/Shelley Dawicki

Not on public view at the aquarium are injured or sick sea turtles. Most are Kemp’s ridley turtles that have washed ashore on Cape Cod beaches in the late fall. Water temperatures start to drop and some turtles experience “cold stunning.” Aquarium staff care for them until they recover and are healthy enough to be returned to the wild. There are presently no resident seals or sea turtles at the aquarium.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Aquarium is closed to the public until further notice. Staff have remained on site, following strict protocols, to care for the animals and maintain water and other systems. They have provided a behind the scenes look during NOAA’s 2021 Virtual Open House and shared some video updates of the public’s favorite animals. They have also made many improvements and upgrades to the aquarium in preparation for re-opening and welcoming the public once again.