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It's time you visited the Belle Isle Aquarium, don't you think? by DC-in-Detroit

DC is a longtime contributor to the MCB.
She can be reached at [at]

Light Up the Aquarium
Fundraiser to bring back the electric eel and other piscatorial novelties
6 December 2013

Belle Isle Aquarium is open every Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Free admission and parking.

As I drove over the low MacArthur Bridge onto the island, I tried to pinpoint the last time I was on Belle Isle. It had to be…decades. Why so long?

The question most of Detroit could have been asking itself was answered by the 2005 closure of the aquarium.

In 2012, the volunteer-run Belle Isle Conservancy managed to get the aquarium reopened on a limited basis. While the aquarium was never entirely abandoned, some restoration is obviously needed, not to mention the return of many of the animals.

The return of one of their prized exhibits is what finally got me back on that low bridge, as the aquarium prepares for the return of an electric eel.

I arrived well after dark, under a perfect low Michigan winter sky, to find the aquarium and Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory beautifully and festively alight. I started snapping with both my iPhone and my pocket camera, tickled at how ridiculously photogenic the grounds were.

I was met inside by conservancy rep Jennifer Boardman, bedecked in the recommended Victorian finery. Bright-eyed and enthusiastic, Jennifer discussed the ongoing struggles to get the aquarium on its feet, but even more about the hardworking group of volunteers excited about the island's future. (Jennifer had written her master's thesis on the Belle Isle Aquarium closure, a paper I was sincerely hoping to find online, and she knows her history. Also, Jennifer totally recognized the visually accurate electric eel headband I was wearing — yeah I did my own research.)

The nearly 110-year-old aquarium was smaller than I remembered, and more beautiful. The arched ceilings with watery green glass tiles create an atmosphere of both depth and intimacy. The exhibits were certainly as I remembered; small, spare, dark tanks, each featuring a few fresh water animals with little fanfare. No matter, I still spent minutes at each tank, up close, getting all the benefits of seeing a lot of local critters without having to step into a lake. (Lakes are gross, y'all.)

There was plenty happening in the room. There were two bands, and a couple of wandering musicians, fading from more traditional holiday music into the decidedly electronic/experimental. And there was a silent auction, this being a fundraiser. Hors d'oeuvres and drinks were available. I mean, the shindig was done up. But I can't help it, the animals on exhibit were still the main attraction for me.

After speaking to Jennifer and spending an hour staring into various tanks, the realization came to me how much the Belle Isle Aquarium affected how I travel, without me even giving it much thought. Whenever I visit a new city, if I know I have a couple of unscheduled hours, my first instinct is to look for a public aquarium. Because any real city will have an aquarium, right? And most of them will specialize in local fauna, which can help to acclimate the visitor. There's nothing like the peacefulness of a large aquarium; the low backlighting, muffled sound, meandering movements of any large animals on exhibit. Not to mention the opportunity to look into an alien landscape, inhabited by all sorts of bizarre and downright prehistoric critters.

A couple hours later, Jennifer found me again. "You must be having a good time — you're still here!"

At a quick count, I've been to at least a half-dozen major aquariums around the US. As small as our precious little Belle Isle Aquarium is, the truth is, I could have loitered around the exhibits for hours still.

Especially given enough quality time with my new buddy the giant gourami.

Happy giant gourami says: "Hi everybody!"

The Belle Isle Aquarium is open every Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Free admission and parking.
More information about the Belle Isle Aquarium, the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory, and the dozen other attractions at Belle Isle, visit the Belle Isle Conservancy.