Swimming to Success
After christening a new animal recovery center and preparing to open an expansion and refurbishment of a major exhibit hall, the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach, Virginia, is gaining a reputation for engaging animal habitats and specialized marine care, while delivering immersive experiences for guests to soak in.
The aquarium sits on 86 acres adjacent to Owl’s Creek tidal inlet, just a short distance from the Atlantic Ocean—an ideal location because it can draw and process natural seawater for its marine habitats, which is not only economical, but contains trace elements found in nature. This prime location also allows the aquarium to offer boat tours to guests. Home to more than 4,000 animals representing nearly 300 species, the attraction is forging back toward its pre-COVID-19 annual attendance of 700,000.
The Virginia Aquarium is a unique and effective collaboration between the City of Virginia Beach and the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center Foundation. The city owns and maintains the grounds and provides administrative support, while the foundation cares for the animals, their habitats, and the exhibits.
Aquarium leaders share with Funworld what makes the attraction special, and discuss not just what they do, but how they do it.
Creating Special Events Geared to Special Audiences
In addition to its “Sensory-Friendly Morning” program for guests with sensory-processing disorders, the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center in Virginia Beach, Virginia, offers other specialized programs.
“Toddler Tuesday” was a popular program the aquarium offered for years until the coronavirus pandemic. The staff realized it could develop a virtual format following the model of the in-person program, where each weekly event presented a theme and follow-along activity, and occasionally a visit with an animal ambassador. Following positive feedback, the aquarium continued the virtual sessions—even after reintroducing on-site early-learner programs.
Another insightful program is “Sharks After Dark,” where adults can experience the aquarium after it closes, sans children. “Adults tend to hang back when kids are present, so this program encourages them to explore and get curious without fear of getting in kids’ way,” says Mackenzie DiNardo, the aquarium’s public relations manager. “Staff noticed adults stay longer and engage in more conversations during these events. It gives the aquarium an opportunity to go in-depth with topics that might normally be off-limits in a daily visit, such as mating and reproduction. After all, saving species requires animals making babies!”
Providing a memorable experience and earning the trust of visitors begins with transparency, renewal, and a training program that promotes interaction. Although the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center began operation 36 years ago, the aquarium is excitedly focused on the future .
“We’re retiring old exhibits from the ’90s and bringing back our otters exhibit,” explains Cynthia Whitbred-Spanoulis, the aquarium’s CEO.
While the aquarium’s river otters are cared for off-site, their habitat is undergoing an extensive refurbishment—which will feature a slide the otters can enjoy. A slide designed for kids is slated to open near the habitat.
The aquarium is transparent when showcasing the husbandry and enrichment it provides animals in professional care. Whitbred-Spanoulis says a new veterinary wing will allow visitors to watch as veterinarians perform procedures. Such up-close veterinary access is now a popular trend at aquariums and zoos.
Dedicated in August 2022, the new Darden Marine Animal Conservation Center supports animals rescued by the aquarium’s Stranding Response Program, which rescues marine animals in need—like turtles and dolphins—along 7,000 miles of Virginia’s tidal shorelines. It’s one of the few facilities on the East Coast of the United States handling sea turtle and seal rehabilitation, and performs necropsies in one location.
Guests experience exhibits exclusive to the conservation center that provide the opportunity to peruse clipboards holding documents with medical records, see real-time tracking of sea turtle and mammal-stranding responses, and view a video that explains the rehab spaces at the Darden center. The aquarium staff is trained to engage with guests, where they emphasize conversations to raise awareness about the threats facing animals in the wild.
2022 shaped up to be a record-breaking year for sea turtles found with a fishing hook caught in their mouth, with 71 reported strandings called into the aquarium and 60 brought to the center for rehabilitation (as of November 2022). In an effort to educate the community outside the attraction, the aquarium launched an enhanced messaging campaign for what fishermen should do if they accidentally hook a sea turtle.
“The Virginia Aquarium also partners with management teams of local fishing piers to educate local anglers in order to expedite medical care for sea turtles hooked at piers,” says Mackenzie DiNardo, the aquarium’s public relations manager. “When a hooking occurs, anglers or pier staffs call the Stranding Response Program and team members are dispatched to begin triage and medical care for the turtle.” Four Virginia piers now display signage, have recovery gear in stock, and provide trained pier staff who are willing to assist when a hooked sea turtle is reported.
Providing Connections and Context
With many zoos and aquariums providing guests with safe, up-close, and supervised contact with animals, aquariums, the facilities serve a crucial role in helping people make connections to animals and grow motivated to care for their well-being.
“People come here to see and make a connection with animals, and they make commitments to saving these animals in the wild,” says Whitbred-Spanoulis. “We can’t allow people to lose that connection.”
She says it’s vital the public understand that aquariums and zoos are far more than just attractions where people can look at animals. The Virginia Aquarium, SeaWorld, and other zoological and aquatic life centers make enormous efforts to rescue stranded or injured animals and have specially trained staff and constructed facilities dedicated to these endeavors. In fact, they’re often the go-to resource for governments when animals need rescuing. These attractions are also heavily involved in preserving animals and their habitats around the world, as well as raising donations to finance these efforts.
The Virginia Aquarium received record support for its largest conservation fundraising auction of 2022, called “Ocean Commotion,” which raised $125,000. The event included stimulating field experiences for high bidders—like observing sea-turtle treatment at the rehab center, joining a resident veterinarian on rounds, and witnessing a private sea-turtle release.
“Virginians can also support ocean conservation and the work of the Stranding Response Program by purchasing an aquarium ‘Protect Sea Life’ license plate at the Virginia DMV,” says DiNardo. The aquarium worked with the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles to introduce the license plates in 2018, which feature a loggerhead sea turtle and the phrase “protect sea life” in bold lettering.
According to California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch, in 1974, 90% of fish stocks were within biologically sustainable levels. Today, that figure has decreased to 66%. So, in 2009, the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center created the Sensible Seafood program in partnership with Seafood Watch to educate consumers about the importance of purchasing sustainable seafood. The aquarium says it uses its various events and initiatives to inform the public about Sensible Seafood, as well as through its education cart for guests on-site.
Offering Exceptional Access
The aquarium also extends interaction opportunities by offering a host of programs that provide special access. One of these programs was born out of an outstanding effort made by the aquarium staff to assist a member’s young son who has a sensitivity to sound. She regularly brought her son to visit the aquarium, but his sound sensitivity limited visits to around 15 minutes. The member asked the staff to consider offering sensory-friendly experiences for those with such disorders.
The staff actually walked through the aquarium with the member to identify areas that could be a problem, and also consulted with experts from the Autism Society Tidewater Virginia, which helped educate staff members on ways to be sensitive, yet inclusive. The member then brought her son to a “Sensory-Friendly Morning,” and he explored the aquarium for a record length of time: 45 minutes.
“Staff launched a successful pilot of ‘Sensory-Friendly Mornings,’ which grew into a quarterly offering, and now occurs monthly,” says DiNardo. “All staff is trained on assisting guests with sensory needs through a partnership with KultureCity, and the Autism Society provides supplemental training on how to handle specific situations.”
Time on the Water Increases Awareness
Due to the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center’s location in Virginia Beach, Virginia, on a tidal inlet near the Atlantic Ocean, guests can delight in boat tours launched from the aquarium’s dock. These include two-hour whale-and dolphin-watching tours held December-March; sunrise and moonrise cruises on the Atlantic Ocean; and ocean collections tours, where passengers can assist in collecting fish, invertebrates, and plankton using the same tools and methods as marine scientists. Tours range in price, duration, and seasonal availability.
Planning for Tomorrow
The Virginia Aquarium is currently working on a new 10-year master plan, but Whitbred-Spanoulis says she can’t give specifics quite yet, because the plan is still in development. However, one thing the master plan will address is updating older habitats, since concrete and steel do not last forever in saltwater environments.
She wants an expansion where animals can be moved into new enclosures, allowing their existing enclosures to be reimagined differently. The aquarium hopes a brand-new seal exhibit will be part of this, including the addition of California sea lions.
“We’ve got some really cool renderings we just showed the Virginia Beach City Council,” she says. “We want to move our sharks into a brand-new, really cool, overhead walk-through aquarium and then demo the back area—where they live now—into really exciting habitats for new species. I’m really thrilled and excited about this updating and reimagination!”