Cheer on the harbor seals of The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk as they explore an enormous new habitat that, upon its June 8 opening, becomes the Aquarium’s largest aquatic display.
At 160,000 gallons, the new seal habitat becomes the largest display in The Maritime Aquarium’s 33-year history, surpassing a 110,000-gallon shark exhibit. It’s eight times larger than the seals’ original display, and offers a world of new opportunities for both the seals and guests alike.
“‘Pinniped Cove’ is transformational in every way,” said Jason Patlis, the Aquarium’s president and CEO. “With its breathtaking design, its state-of the-art life-support systems and its sheer size, ‘Pinniped Cove’ offers an unprecedented experience for our seals, our staff and our guests. Together with our 4D Theater that opened in February, ‘Pinniped Cove’ secures The Maritime Aquarium’s place as one of the premier aquariums in the nation.”
The Maritime Aquarium displays five female harbor seals (Phoca vitulina), the species of seal that commonly migrate into nearby Long Island Sound each winter. At the new L-shaped exhibit, guests can view the seals from three sides and two levels: underwater, through floor-to-ceiling windows on the first floor; and above the surface on the second floor.
“This is a beautiful, enormous new space that guests will love maybe even more than the seals will,” said Aquarium spokesman Dave Sigworth. “The exhibit represents an exciting new opportunity for us to tell the story of the seals that populate our local waters, for us to further enhance the care that we provide to our seals, and for our seals to just – well – be seals in a much larger, deeper environment.”
“Pinniped Cove” celebrates seals as a conservation success story, through graphic displays that explain how their populations have rebounded greatly in New England since passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972. Guests also will learn about seal physiology and their role in the marine ecosystem.
Barrett Christie, the Aquarium’s director of Animal Husbandry, said that, behind the scenes, the new exhibit features a state-of-the-art water-quality system, and an adjacent clinic that makes it easier to provide the seals with optimum care.
“As excellent as the exhibit will appear to our guests, it’s equally as excellent behind-the-scenes for the seals’ daily and potential advanced care,” Christie said. “‘Pinniped Cove’ updates our facilities to ensure we can provide the highest standard of care for another 30 years.”
“Pinniped Cove” replaces the seals’ original 19,000-gallon exhibit, where they lived from 1988-2019. (The word pinniped means “fin- or flipper-footed” and is the scientific grouping for seals, sea lions and walruses.)
Construction of the seal exhibit and the 4D theater represent a unique collaborative effort by the State of Connecticut, the City of Norwalk and The Maritime Aquarium to address the impacts of the coming replacement of the Walk Bridge, a 125-year-old railroad bridge adjacent to the Aquarium. The Walk Bridge Project requires razing the Aquarium’s former IMAX Theater and replacing the original indoor-outdoor seal habitat, so that the seals – and Aquarium guests – can have a secure, enclosed habitat protected from the construction, just yards away. The State provided $40 million in funding, and the City managed the capital construction project for the Aquarium, to compensate for the loss of those signature assets.
“I am extraordinarily grateful to Gov. Lamont and to Norwalk’s mayor, Harry Rilling, and their respective staffs for their partnership in this enterprise,” Patlis said. “That we completed the project in the midst of a global pandemic is a testament to the hard work and dedication of everyone involved.”
James Mason, Principal Property Agent for the Connecticut Department of Transportation’s Division of Rights of Way, also recognized the partnership and cooperation that was required for the project.
“When you see an exhibit like this, it’s hard to imagine the planning, engineering and management needed to make it happen,” Mason said. “I appreciate the opportunity to have shared in this unique experience and I want to thank the Aquarium and the City for their collaboration.”
Design of the 4D theater and seal exhibit was led by the architectural firm Beyer, Blinder, Belle. The projects were managed by the City of Norwalk. Construction management was a joint venture of AP Construction and O&G Industries.
“With COVID vaccinations increasing and cases falling, folks are ready to venture back out this summer, and we’re ready and excited to show off this fantastic seal exhibit and our immersive 4D Theater,” Sigworth said. “If you haven’t visited The Maritime Aquarium in a while, come see how much we’ve changed.”
Based on guidelines of the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and the state of Connecticut. unvaccinated guests – and all children age 2-12 – must continue to wear masks in The Maritime Aquarium. Vaccinated guests are strongly encouraged to continue to wear their masks too.