The National Aquarium in Washington, D.C., is a hidden treasure, tucked into the basement of the Department of Commerce building just a stone’s throw from the White House. When we visited the aquarium on Sunday, we found it to be charming, intimate, and highly educational, full of young children buzzing with excitement to see and learn about an array of dazzling undersea creatures.
The National Aquarium in Washington, D.C., is going to close at the end of this summer. For the first time since 1878, there will be no aquarium in our nation’s capitol.
More on that in a moment. First, some highlights from the aquarium:
This beautiful pink-and-purple sea anemone was one of the aquarium’s most eye-catching sights. It has a commensal relationship with that lone clownfish you see in the center, which is protected from potential predators by the anemone’s stinging cnidae. The evolutionary biology behind this relationship is pretty fascinating.
The little kids in the museum loved the exhibit too, swarming around it with shouts of, “Look, an anemone!” (I’m sure they’ve all seen “Finding Nemo.”)
Now here’s where things get really interesting. This leopard shark is from one of four National Marine Sanctuaries off the coast of California, my home state.
If you’ve never heard of the National Marine Sanctuary Program—which, I’m guessing, you haven’t—neither had I, until Sunday. The National Marine Sanctuary Program was created back in 1972, when Congress—which, at the time, was a legislative body that could actually take sweeping action on important and substantive issues—passed the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act. That act was a response to the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969, which forced the importance of healthy marine ecosystems into the national consciousness, at least temporarily.
Today, the program, which is administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, protects 14 marine environments with particular ecological, cultural, or scientific value. The protected areas span the waters of the U.S. mainland, Hawaii, and several U.S. territories around the world. And each of those 14 marine environments has its own special exhibit in the National Aquarium.
Pretty cool, right? After seeing firsthand the kinds of creatures this program is protecting, I’m glad to know it exists.
Even with all of these amazing animals, there’s no denying that the National Aquarium is small and unflashy—when it comes to size and scope, it’s got nothing on the aquariums in Monterey, Boston, and New Orleans. But in its own quiet, unassuming way, the National Aquarium rivals any of them. If you’re looking to learn a thing or three about the importance of marine and freshwater habitat preservation, or to marvel at some amazing marine wildlife, or simply to cool off on a hot summer day, the National Aquarium’s got you covered.
Moreover, the National Aquarium’s existence—and its prominent placement on the National Mall, between the White House and the Washington Monument—serves as a testament to the importance of studying and preserving marine and freshwater species and critical habitats. For more than 130 years, it has signaled a recognition that we, as a country, are as committed to protecting life under the sea as we are to protecting life here on land. And ultimately, that’s what aquariums are for—showing us the beauty and teaching us the importance of an underwater world that would otherwise be invisible.
Congress, apparently, didn’t get the memo. In 1982, during an era of frenzied budget-cutting, legislators eliminated all public funding for the National Aquarium, throwing it into the financial deep end (water pun #1). But while Congress apparently thought it was “eliminating” the aquarium by eliminating its funding, the aquarium has spent the last 30 years treading water (water pun #2), subsisting on ticket sales and private donations.
Since the Great Recession hit in 2007, though, funds have started to dry up (water pun #3). Furthermore, thanks to an ongoing 14-year project to renovate the Commerce Department, the aquarium has spent several years preparing to move, but it recently become clear that there was nowhere it could afford to move to. It is, in effect, dead in the water.
Where do all of those bad puns get us? To an aquarium that’s set to close on September 30, 2013.
Some of the National Aquarium’s sea creatures will be transferred to its sister aquarium in Baltimore, and some will be transferred to other aquariums throughout the country. And that’s great for those other aquariums, which will be no doubt benefit from the fish, turtles, sharks, anemones, corals, and other undersea species.
But if you want to learn about the National Marine Sanctuary Program, and see in one place all of the living reasons that it’s important, you won’t be able to do that. If you’re a tourist visiting D.C., you won’t have the chance to happen upon an aquarium as you walk from the White House to the Washington Monument. And if you’re a kid growing up in Washington, you won’t have an aquarium to call your own. And I think that’s pretty sad.
The National Aquarium’s board of directors is working hard to find a new location, and you can support its efforts with a tax-deductible donation here. Or, even better, hop on a bus or a train or a plane, and come see the aquarium in person. As long as you get here before September 30, that is.
Check out, “A day at the aquarium: part 2,” on the importance of shark preservation!