‘The Aquarium Pickers Road Tour’

Belle Isle Aquarium volunteers head to D.C. to get materials for Detroit aquatic gem

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published February 12, 2014

 Katie Meister, of Royal Oak, hauls coral reef out of the National Aquarium in Washington, D.C., to bring back to Belle Isle in January.

Katie Meister, of Royal Oak, hauls coral reef out of the National Aquarium in Washington, D.C., to bring back to Belle Isle in January.

Photo provided

In April of 2005, Jennifer Boardman’s daughter was just 5 years old. When the family heard that the famed Belle Isle Aquarium that they loved to visit would be shutting down, the little girl said, “Mommy, don’t let it close.”

Boardman couldn’t refuse the request.

As the co-chair of the Belle Isle Aquarium Committee, Boardman has worked for years to restore the 110-year-old Detroit staple so it could be reopened to the public. She and her group accomplished their mission, but there’s more work to be done — for instance, acquiring new fish and putting the world-class aquatic attractions back together on a shoestring budget.

So you can imagine the bittersweet excitement Boardman, of Lathrup Village, felt when she heard the National Aquarium in Washington, D.C., would be closing its doors. The loss of such an institution is certainly sad, but there was an opportunity there, too. The committee could recycle the National Aquarium’s exhibit materials and bring the Detroit facility back to life.

“I reached out to them in August, and they got back to me and said we could pretty much take any exhibit material we wanted,” said Boardman. “So we got this team together of seven people, and we drove in a caravan — two minivans — with pallets and tools in one van, and people in the other. And we drove to D.C. and picked up a truck that was loaned to us. We went in with wrenches and hammers, and filled the truck to the brim and brought it back.”

The truck was donated by Roger Penske, who’s been very invested in the success of Belle Isle’s revival, said Boardman. Executive Vice President of Penske Automotive Group and Penske Performance, Bud Denker, has also been involved. The Bloomfield Hills resident is the sole Oakland County resident to sit on the newly formed Belle Isle Advisory Committee.

“Penske Truck Rental is pleased to assist the Belle Isle Conservancy and Belle Isle Aquarium with the transportation of equipment from the National Aquarium in Washington, D.C., to Detroit,” Denker stated in an email. “We remain committed to the revitalization of Belle Isle and Detroit as a whole, and our assistance in this recent initiative is a small way for us to ensure that the assets of Belle Isle are restored and improved for our citizens to use year-round.”

The team packed up coolers and didn’t make any pit stops on the way to the capital. They dubbed themselves “The Aquarium Pickers Road Tour” and had just seven hours to collect as much as they could from the National Aquarium to use for tankscaping. Huge hunks of pricey reef coral, artificial trees and sea fans, and other items were taken to bring back to Detroit.

Even a simulated freighter hull and a World War II-era plane were snatched up to bring back to the Belle Isle Aquarium, so exhibits could be created to show how wreckage found in lakes and oceans eventually become a part of the aquatic habitat.

In all, the team drove away with about $80,000 worth of exhibition materials.

“We loved the idea of recycling and reusing. That stuff is very expensive, and it would’ve come out of our budget at some point,” she said. “But we also wanted to create this partnership and have a piece of (the National Aquarium) live on through our aquarium.”

After all, when the Belle Isle Aquarium closed its doors in 2005, the exhibits and animals were dispersed to aquariums across the country, including the National Aquarium. No matter what happens, it seems, the fish will always have the chance to just keep swimming.

“We’re glad to see that National Aquarium, Washington, D.C., can contribute to a fellow conservation like Belle Isle Conservancy,” David Lin, Director of Operations for National Aquarium, said in a prepared statement. “This is a wonderful opportunity for the legacy of our facility to live on as we discuss our future presence in the capital.”

Like Belle Isle, there is hope that the National Aquarium can someday be restored.

But, as the committee will tell you, there’s a lot of work in resurrecting a historic educational treasure. Recently, the Belle Isle Aquarium brought back the electric eels that were so popular years ago. Their new tank is being outfitted with the materials taken from D.C. last month, and Boardman said she hopes to bring back the meter to show guests the electric current the eels emit. Right now, though, it’s just about making the place look good and getting guests in the doors.

“While it’s great to have the Belle Isle Aquarium open again, we are the first to admit that many of our exhibits could use aesthetic improvement,” said Vance Patrick, a Belle Isle conservancy director, from Southfield. “We have been concentrating on repairing and restoring tanks that have developed leaks during the seven years we were closed.”

Recently, the aquarium welcomed the Pure Detroit Outpost to the facility, where guests can shop for aquarium souvenirs and other Motor City memorabilia. That, combined with so many other improvements slated for the near future, is sure to make Boardman’s daughter — now a teenager — very happy, along with many other Detroiters.

“When things close in Detroit, they usually stay closed. But we just refuse to say no. So, we’re starting over in Detroit,” said Boardman.

The Belle Isle Aquarium reopened with limited hours in September 2012, under the newly formed Belle Isle Conservancy. Belle Isle is a Detroit municipal park and recently became Michigan’s 102nd state park under a lease agreement made late last year.

For more information, visit www.belleisleconservancy.org.