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Belle Isle Aquarium sees renovations and new exhibits

Attendance stronger than expected for winter season

By: Kevin Bunch | Roseville - Eastpointe Eastsider | Published March 8, 2016 | Updated March 9, 2016 11:09pm

 Re-creations of the Belle Isle Aquarium’s original pendant lights were installed in the 112-year-old structure in February as part of ongoing restoration work at the aquarium.

Re-creations of the Belle Isle Aquarium’s original pendant lights were installed in the 112-year-old structure in February as part of ongoing restoration work at the aquarium.

Photo provided by the Belle Isle Conservancy

DETROIT — Restoration work at the 112-year-old Belle Isle Aquarium is continuing amid programs and new additions to its array of aquatic life.

Vance Patrick, co-chair of the Belle Isle Aquarium Committee, said workers are finishing up the restoration of the building’s skylights and should be finished restoring its glass ceiling tiles in April, if all goes well.

The ceiling tiles date back to 1904, and that fact is playing a major role in another building project: adding back pendant lights to the aquarium. Patrick said volunteers went over old photographs of the aquarium and got up close to the ceiling to determine the original placement of the lights as accurately as possible. The lights were paid for thanks to a private donor, he added.

“We use (the tiles) as a size reference to replicating these light fixtures we put back in,” Patrick said. “Without having blueprints, these are pretty darn exact to what was there in 1904.”

Looking ahead, he said that aquarium volunteers are continuing to restore the tanks, getting them back to a point where they could safely house aquatic life. Patrick said that as of Feb. 29, the aquarium has eight tanks currently in need of restoration.

Not all tanks are currently housing exhibits, though — others are currently papered off and are being used by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources for fish being socialized or quarantined, Patrick added.

The existing tanks are also being used to house some new arrivals to the aquarium. In addition to older residents like electric eels, stingrays, frogs and clownfish, new arrivals include South American lungfish — fish that need to surface and breathe air periodically — and plecostomus catfish. Patrick said they also now have some new baby seahorses and upside-down jellyfish.

Amy Emmert, school programs director with the aquarium, said they have been bringing in third- and fourth-grade students from the Detroit and Hamtramck public school districts on field trips to the aquarium, something they plan on continuing over the next few months. Over 700 students have visited as part of a General Motors Foundation grant, she said.

“In addition to our field trips, the aquarium hosts events called ‘Science Saturdays,’ which are usually topics of concern to our Great Lakes watershed, or relate to our collection, and are geared to the general public,” Emmert said in an email. Those free events take place every second Saturday of the month; the March 12 event will be on the microscopic mites of the Great Lakes and will take place at noon, 1 p.m. and 2 p.m.

On May 7, Emmert said the aquarium is also hosting its annual koi transfer, when the koi fish will be transferred from their winter home in the aquarium’s basement to a pond outside by visitors. She said the event is “bring your own bucket” and is open to kids.

The aquarium also hosts “aquaranger” events for kids each month, Patrick said, where they can come in and do crafts on the third and fourth Saturdays of the month.

Patrick said that when the aquarium shifted to its winter hours — only being open on Saturdays and Sundays, as opposed to adding Fridays during the summer — officials expected a major drop-off in the number of visitors. The aquarium is still drawing between 2,000 and 3,000 people a weekend, though, and more often closer to 3,000. In comparison, last summer the aquarium saw about 6,000 visitors a weekend.

“I’m impressed that even in the dead of winter, we’re still drawing pretty huge crowds,” Patrick said.

They also have been renting out space in the aquarium for corporate parties, children’s birthday parties and wedding anniversaries, he added.

Emmert said more information on upcoming events and hours can be found at or at The aquarium is located on Belle Isle and admission is by donation, though motorists will need a state park pass — or pay for a year’s pass for $11 — to enter Belle Isle itself.