NORWALK, CT – Cheer on the harbor seals of The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk as they explore an enormous new habitat that, upon its June 8 opening, becomes the Aquarium’s largest aquatic display.
The 160,000-gallon seal exhibit – as well as a 4D movie theater and redesigned main entrance, which both opened in January – are the largest transformations in The Maritime Aquarium’s 33-year history.
Guests will be able to watch from above and below the surface as seals dive, twirl and bob in the 22-foot-deep exhibit, called “Pinniped Cove.” (The word pinniped means “fin- or flipper-footed” and is the scientific grouping for seals, sea lions and walruses.) The seals’ new home is more than seven times larger than their original 19,000-gallon exhibit, where they lived from 1988-2019. It’s also more than one-third larger than The Maritime Aquarium’s signature 110,000-gallon, 18-foot-deep shark exhibit.
“This is a beautiful, enormous new space that guests will love maybe even more than the seals will,” said Aquarium spokesman Dave Sigworth. “The exhibit represents an exciting new opportunity for us to tell the story of the seals that populate our local waters, for us to further enhance the care that we provide to our seals, and for our seals to just – well – be seals in a much larger, deeper environment.”
On Tues., June 8 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Maritime Aquarium members get an exclusive first look at the new exhibit. The Aquarium will open to the public at 1 p.m., and offer special activity stations focused on both seals and that day’s global celebration of World Oceans Day.
The Maritime Aquarium displays five female harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), the species of seal that commonly migrate into Long Island Sound each winter. At the new L-shaped exhibit, guests can view the seals from three sides and two levels: underwater, through floor-to-ceiling windows on the first floor; and above the surface on the second floor. The new habitat is entirely indoors, with a bank of exterior windows upstairs overlooking the Norwalk River.
“Pinniped Cove” celebrates seals as a conservation success story, through graphic displays that explain how their populations have rebounded greatly in New England since passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. Guests also will learn about seal physiology and their role in the marine ecosystem.
Barrett Christie, the Aquarium’s director of Animal Husbandry, said that, behind the scenes, the new exhibit features a state-of-the-industry water-quality system, and an adjacent clinic that will make it easier to provide the seals with optimum care.
“This is one of the best and largest displays devoted to harbor seals in the U.S.,” Christie said. “Fabricated rock work on the bottom and along the edges simulate their native natural environs of New England. And guests have the opportunity again to watch as our staff feeds the seals and works with them on animal-husbandry techniques.”
The debut of “Pinniped Cove” is timed for June 8 to mark World Oceans Day, the date designated by the United Nations for humanity to annually celebrate the marine world. This year’s theme is “The Ocean: Life and Livelihoods.” The Maritime Aquarium will offer special in-person activity stations for guests, as well as special daily virtual programs June 8-13.
The June 8 opening celebration includes two free afternoon events in the 4D Theater:
• at 3:30 p.m. – a talk by acclaimed author/ecologist Carl Safina, the Endowed Professor for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University and founding president of the Safina Center, which seeks to advance the case for life on Earth by fusing scientific understanding, emotional connection and a moral call to action. A leading voice on humanity’s relationship with nature, Safina was named by Audubon magazine as one of its “100 Notable Conservationists of the 20th Century.” Safina will talk about the complex society of animals, our own relationship with animals, and why the new “Pinniped Cove” exhibit is important both for our harbor seals and for us.
• at 4:30 p.m. – a screening of the 95-minute documentary “Mission Blue,” which follows marine biologist Sylvia Earle’s campaign to create a global network of marine sanctuaries. (It will play in 2D.)
The seal exhibit and the new 4D theater/main entrance are the Aquarium’s responses to the coming replacement of a 125-year-old railroad bridge that runs closely adjacent to what is Connecticut’s second-largest family attraction. Funding for the projects came from a $40 million “functional replacement” agreement between the City of Norwalk and State of Connecticut negotiated because of the bridge project, which requires razing the Aquarium’s former IMAX Theater and providing a secure habitat for the seals.
Since November 2019, the Aquarium’s seals have lived in a temporary exhibit to allow for construction of the new habitat on – and beyond – the footprint of their original indoor-outdoor space.
“With COVID vaccinations increasing and cases falling, folks are ready to venture back out this summer, and we’re ready and excited to show off this fantastic seal exhibit and our immersive 4D Theater,” Sigworth said. “If you haven’t visited The Maritime Aquarium in a while, come see how much we’ve changed.”
Based on guidelines of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the state of Connecticut. unvaccinated guests – and all children age 2-12 – must continue to wear masks in The Maritime Aquarium. Vaccinated guests are strongly encouraged to continue to wear their masks too.
Learn more about the Aquarium’s exhibits, programs and public cruises this summer at www.maritimeaquarium.org.