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Aquarium sets $15m last stage of renovation

The aquarium’s four-story Giant Ocean Tank will be refurbished as part of a $15 million renovation set to begin around Labor Day and end in July 2013.
The aquarium’s four-story Giant Ocean Tank will be refurbished as part of a $15 million renovation set to begin around Labor Day and end in July 2013. (Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

The New England Aquarium is planning a $15 million renovation of its core exhibits, the final piece of a five-year upgrade launched in 2007. The goal, according to aquarium officials, is both to enhance the aging facility’s physical appearance and to bolster its education and conservation missions.

The latest phase, a 10-month project that will begin around Labor Day and end in July 2013, includes refurbishing the facility’s four-story Giant Ocean Tank and surrounding exhibit spaces; opening a new ground-floor center focused on conservation and research efforts; and giving the facility a near-total facelift, including cleaning concrete walls, installing new lighting, and providing touch-screen computers that allow visitors to learn more about the animals they’re observing.

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“Our goal is to make visitors feel like they’re having an entirely new experience,’’ aquarium president Bud Ris said Wednesday.

For most visitors, the most striking change is likely to be how they experience the ocean tank, which was the world’s largest such installation when the aquarium opened. The 200,000-gallon tank will get enlarged viewing windows, a new reef exhibit inside it, and a reflective domed ceiling overhead. During the months when the tank is being overhauled, its 800 marine inhabitants will be temporarily relocated to the ground-floor penguin exhibit, a 150,000-gallon habitat that is home to more than 80 birds.

Rather than build a new facility from scratch at a cost that could approach $400 million, Ris said, aquarium trustees approved a $42.5 million expansion and renovation plan - still a significant sum, he noted, but one more in keeping with the blueprint by which Fenway Park has been remodeled in recent years rather than replaced altogether.

“What’s being done is mostly driven by our strategic plan, together with the fact that this is a 40-year-old building housing live animals in a corrosive environment,’’ said board chairman Bill Burgess. “Plus, we want to do the right thing by our mission.’’

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Trustees are trying to raise the final $3 million in capital funding, Burgess said. The bulk of the $39 million raised to so far has come from individual donors, board members, companies, and foundations. New Balance, for one, acquired naming rights to the $12 million marine mammal center that opened in 2009. Another major source, the Trust Family Foundation, underwrote the $1.5 million shark and ray touch tank that opened last year and bears its name.

Another $2 million has been spent on bringing the facility up to code on systems such as fire alarms and sprinklers. All improvements are being funded by donors and not by incurring additional debt, officials said.

Beginning in late summer, when the ocean tank is being prepped for renovation, “it will not be business as usual around here,’’ Ris said. “But the aquarium will remain open. And there will still be plenty to do and see.’’

Opened on Boston’s waterfront in 1969, the aquarium drew 1.36 million visitors in 2011, its highest total in a decade. During the past two years, membership has grown from 16,000 to 22,000, in part because of recent additions that have proved to be popular, notably the touch tank and marine mammal exhibit.

Audrey Marcus-Berkman visited the aquarium on Wednesday with her 3-year-old son was of Newton, and she said she is looking forward to the changes.

“Anything that brightens [the aquarium] up would be really welcome,’’ said Marcus-Berkman, who brings family members there once or twice a year.

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Other changes to the ocean tank will include replacing the wooden wall encircling its top with a transparent acrylic wall, to facilitate better viewing. There will also be a new ramp leading from the fourth-floor elevator to the tank’s top edge and a new education center located on the aquarium’s top floor.

Inside the tank, the Caribbean coral reef exhibit, which has lost much of its luster in recent years, will be overhauled and made more colorful. Divers will be equipped with video cameras, allowing visitors a diver’s-eye view as they watch underwater video on nearby screens. New species will be introduced as well.

During renovation, those animals, which include several large sharks and a 560-pound sea turtle named Myrtle, will be relocated downstairs. Most of the aquarium’s penguins, meanwhile, will be taken to the aquarium’s animal care center in Quincy, a $5 million facility that opened two years ago. To accommodate its new inhabitants, water in the penguin enclosure will be heated to 75 degrees, significantly warmer than its current 52 degrees. Animals will be monitored for any signs of distress after they are moved, staffers say.

The tank will be emptied in October and refilled next April. By June the animals should be back in their new home, along with several new species of shark and fish. Major construction will mostly take place at night, officials say, so disruptions to the visiting public should be minimal.

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Beyond the physical improvements is an effort to more fully integrate education and conservation programs with the fun of watching penguins, sea turtles, and other marine life do what they do naturally.

“We know from exit surveys that visitors come to see live animals,’’ Ris said. “But they want to see them through the live human beings who care for them, too.’’


Joseph P. Kahn can be reached at jkahn@globe.com.