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An early rendering of the New York Aquarium.

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History of the New York Aquarium

The New York Aquarium at Coney Island is the place to go to learn about aquatic life. The Aquarium has been a part of the city since December 10, 1896 when it opened at its first location in the Battery's Castle Clinton in Lower Manhattan. The oldest continually operating aquarium in the United States, the New York Zoological Society assumed care of the Aquarium in 1902. In the Aquarium's early years, the facility housed only 150 specimens. Today's version of the Aquarium is home to over 350 species of aquatic wildlife and over 8,000 specimens.

The Aquarium lasted in the Battery until 1941 when it was relocated to Coney Island because of the construction of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel. (The Aquarium's inhabitants were temporarily housed at the Bronx Zoo.) The New York Aquarium opened on the Coney Island boardwalk on June 6, 1957, part of a larger plan to revitalize the area. The entire project cost $9 million and used 1.25 million gallons of water. When the aquarium was opened, a New York Zoological Society brochure on the facility boasted “many hundreds of fish species, marine and fresh water, tropical, temperate and arctic, beautiful, weird and downright hideous.” A big attraction, the facility served over 400,000 school children during the first school season it was open.

A rendering of the Water Cycle exhibit in the soon-to-come New York Aquarium in its new Coney Island location, published by the New York Zoological Society in 1952.

Today's Aquarium fulfills the wider goals of the Wildlife Conservation Society by raising public awareness about environmental issues facing the ocean and its ecosystem. The Aquarium's Osborn Laboratories of Marine Sciences (OLMS) has been involved in studies looking at dolphin cognition, satellite tagging of sharks and coral reefs. The Aquarium also is home to one of Coney Island's most important public artworks, the 332-foot long, ten-foot tall cast-concrete “Symphony of the Sea” sculpture wall by artist Toshio Sasaki (one of the eight finalists of the Ground Zero Memorial competition) that was installed on the boardwalk outside the Aquarium in 1992. The free-standing wall features terrazzo and ceramic shapes with motifs of ocean waves, fishes, and zygotes evocative of the evolution of marine life. The four-ton piece was sponsored by the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs' Percent for Art program, and was installed to celebrate the Aquarium's Sea Cliffs Exhibition.

The sea lion show at the New York Aquarium, October 19, 2006. Photo: Daniel Avila.

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