NORWALK, Conn. – A crowd of more than 2,500 people packed the Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk for the unveiling Saturday of its $4 million “FINtastic RefurbFISHment,” which dazzles with new sea life and hands-on-exhibits.
“It’s a lot more fun here now. They took out all the boring stuff,” said Flynn Coffey, 11. He loves the new lemon shark and the more lively otters that are “much more active than the ones they used to have.” The new shark thrilled the crowd as it swam around its 110,000-gallon tank, leading the sand tiger sharks in the Ocean Beyond the Sound exhibit.
His mom Kathleen Nagle of Norwalk said the entire family — husband Michael Coffey and their four children ages 5 to 11 — was impressed by the aquarium’s updated, new colorful look.
“It’s much more user friendly,” she said of the new lighting and touch-display educational guides. She also said the increased emphasis on Long Island Sound’s history and environment makes the aquarium more relevant than ever.
“They did a tremendous job. It was worth waiting for,” said Nagle. “When you walk in the main hall, it has a much more open feel. And the soft blue colors make you feel like you are surrounded by the ocean.”
That was one of the goals of the refurbishment, which will also include a new hands-on shark and stingray exhibit opening in April, said publicist Dave Sigworth.
“We wanted to create a theme that made Long Island Sound the centerpiece of everything we do. The Sound was always a big component here, but now we’ve taken that to a whole new level and created a new way of moving through the exhibits that flows better and builds from sea life in shallow to deep water and to the ocean’s floor.”
Chris Loynd, the aquarium’s director of marketing, said the idea is to present a history of the Sound – what it was like one year ago, 100 years ago and 1,000 years ago, through a range of sea life, animals and fish, and live demonstrations, as well as educational videos and games.
It starts in the renovated, expanded and more colorful main hall. It was renamed Newman’s Own Hall in recognition of the $1.2 million grant from the Newman’s Own Foundation, started by the late actor Paul Newman. The central staircase, which hovered above the seals exhibit, is gone.
The hall now features a massive interactive introduction game with a 36-by-12-foot map. Visitors use digital kiosks to play “Found in the Sound,” which quizzes people’s knowledge of the Sound’s marine animals and habitats. Correct answers light up on the giant map.
“The game’s questions are fun but also subtly prepare visitors for learning and discovering as they move on into the aquarium’s galleries,” said aquarium President and CEO Jennifer Herring. She said it is the biggest renovation at the aquarium in more than a decade.
“We’ve been here before, but wanted to see all the changes,” said Doug Nelson of Southbury. He brought his 6-year-old daughter Hannah and 2-year-old son Joshua on Saturday.
“What I find enlightening is learning about the interaction between the Sound and our everyday lives,” said Nelson. “It’s been exciting for my daughter to see all the fun, new sea life and exhibits, and it’s made me more aware of the changes that go on in the Sound over long periods of time.”
Hannah said, “I like the sharks. They look like they’re swimming right out of the tank and into your face.”
The aquarium at 10 N Water St., Norwalk, is open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The cost is $12.95 for adults; $11.95 for seniors; $9.95 for ages 2-12; and free for children under 2 and members. For more information, visit www.maritimeaquarium.org.