50 Ways We’ve Saved The Bay: Opened the Exploration Center and Aquarium in Newport
By Mackensie duPont Crowley, communications specialist
Following years of advocacy and restoration work, Save The Bay’s education program, ‘Explore The Bay,’ was officially established in 1986. The following two decades brought phases of rapid development, including the addition of vessel family cruises, summer camps and full-day programs. With 35,000 people served by the early 2000s, the value of experiential education was clear. Save The Bay kicked off a $10 million capital campaign devoted to educational programming, with the goal of providing a Bay experience to every student within the watershed by the time they graduated high school.
The success of the campaign allowed Save The Bay to take over an existing aquarium and New England Aquarium satellite site on Easton’s Beach, and turn it into a hands-on marine science learning facility. The Exploration Center and Aquarium opened in 2006, bringing Save The Bay’s presence directly into the Newport community and expanding the scope of ‘Explore The Bay’ programs, with a new goal of educating an additional 30,000 people per year.
“Running an aquarium was a completely new endeavor for us,” said Bridget Kubis Prescott, currently Save The Bay’s Director of Education and formerly the original manager of the Aquarium. The team had to develop the skills and knowledge to run the Center, and started by hiring an aquarist and other staff members skilled in animal husbandry, as well as fleet of skilled interns from local colleges and universities.
The Center received a full ‘Save The Bay makeover,’ with new painted murals and red and white signage throughout. Previously run by the New England Aquarium and the City of Newport, the exhibits had been historically focused on ocean-based species and habitats. Under Save The Bay’s management, the Center became home to over 150 species of animals retrieved exclusively from Narragansett Bay by hand, seine boat or local fishermen. The featured exhibits had a local focus, such as ‘Narragansett Bay at Night,’ which showed interesting bioluminescent species, and a Climate Change tank. “We wanted to be less ocean-focused and more about our Bay, our changing Bay, and looking at it through the lens of climate change,” said Bridget.
In its inaugural summer of 2006, the Exploration Center and Aquarium saw 6,300 summer guests, aided in part by a membership swap with three local nonprofits: the Audubon Society, Norman Bird Sanctuary and Rhode Island Lighthouse Foundation. The Center was deemed an immediate success, and it was clear that updates would be necessary to stay open as the seasons changed. Save The Bay applied for and received a grant to install a heating system, enabling educators to utilize the Center for year-round programming and serve as an educational hub for school groups on Aquidneck Island. In 2007, educators provided science curriculum for the entire freshman class of the Public Street Campus of the MET School.
Expanded winter hours of the Exploration Center and Aquarium added depth and quality to Save The Bay’s winter seal programming, providing a classroom space for students to learn about the species and its habitat in addition to the on-vessel Bay-tour experience. Winter programming, partnerships with local schools, and open hours during school vacations led more than 7,500 guests to the Exploration Center and Aquarium in its second year.
While the popularity of the Exploration Center and Aquarium has continued to grow each year, it has faced some significant challenges since inception. The cutting of federal earmark funding in 2010 forced the team to rethink how they would operate on a leaner budget, and lead them to rely more heavily on volunteers. Location has also posed somewhat of a challenge; the Center and Aquarium sits along a highly dynamic action zone on Easton’s Beach. Hurricane Sandy caused major damage in 2012, bringing a foot of sand and various debris into the building. The Center closed for nine months as community members and volunteers joined forces to return the space to sound condition and renovate with storm preparation in mind.
The Exploration Center and Aquarium continues to be a staple of Save The Bay’s Education programming on Aquidneck Island. Today, our collection is 100 percent locally sourced, with most species visiting us temporarily before we release them back into the wild, stronger, larger, and more resilient than when they arrived.
The future holds some exciting updates! Present day Exploration Center Manager Adam Kovarsky, has developed an ongoing aquaculture program where Save The Bay breeds skates and chain cat sharks right in the Center. Thanks to grant funding, a new touch tank is to be installed in the Exploration Center this winter, giving full access to all visitors and allowing educators greater opportunity to lead hands-on programs. This will be a major update to the Aquarium!
As we reflect on Save The Bay’s 50 years, the team is excited to welcome the community into the ever-changing Exploration Center and Aquarium, a space that serves as more than just an educational facility, but as a nucleus for our restoration and advocacy work, too. Every revenue dollar earned through the Center directly supports our mission of supporting the Bay and its watershed – and it’s a whole lot of fun.