The soft blue lights went dark in the jellyfish tank, octopuses weren’t on display to outsmart spectators, and the 13-year-old Hawaiian monk seal, Hoailona, left his habitat empty for a yearlong trip to the mainland.
After months without visitors amid the pandemic, the Waikiki Aquarium quickly transformed into a ghost town.
Conditions have not improved much since the doors reopened to the public on July 1. Many tanks are still empty, some habitat surfaces are peeling, and the 65-year-old building has trouble hiding its age.
Waikiki Aquarium director Andrew Rossiter blamed a loss of revenue on a more than 10-month closure to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. He noted that more than 90% of operating costs come from ticket sales and facility rentals.
“Those two resources dried up overnight,” he said in a recent interview. “And yet, the running costs of the aquarium continued unabated.”
After running pumps, cleaning filters and maintaining healthy habitats for months without revenue, Rossiter had to cut his full-time staff in half, from 32 before the pandemic to 18.
“The new model is to emphasize research, education and conservation.” — Waikiki Aquarium Director Andrew Rossiter
Despite the long list of financial losses over the year, brighter days are ahead for the 3,500 living marine organisms inhabiting the Waikiki Aquarium, which is already drawing more visitors than before the pandemic at 720 per day versus 700 before the closure.
According to Rossiter, the aquarium expects $2.3 million in pandemic relief funds to “offset their losses” in the next month and $10 million for improvement plans, surveying, construction and installations over the next two years.
However, he said they’ll need much more to accomplish the new model he hopes to create.
Rossiter is currently focused on trying to restore a full staff while eyeing plans to overhaul the facility, including completely redoing the indoor galleries.
He wants to build a new building on the lawn for an ocean exhibit including a 540,000-gallon tank with deep water marine life such as sunfish, sharks and tuna.
He also wants to shift the aquarium’s core purpose from entertainment to education and conservation by changing signs, integrating informative videos on different native and endangered species in Hawaii and giving visitors guidance on how to behave with marine life in the wild.
Rossiter acknowledged that he’s strongly against holding marine mammals in captivity in zoos and aquariums and only makes exceptions for those that wouldn’t survive otherwise.
He pointed to one of the aquarium’s star attractions — Hoailona, a 13-year-old blind monk seal.
“The only reason why we keep (the seal) is that he’s 95% blind, and just could not survive in the wild,” Rossiter said.
Hoailona was just 3 days old when he was rescued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration after being abandoned by his mother. NOAA released him into the wild again, but six months later found him on Molokai interacting and playing with children instead of other seals.
During Hoailona’s medical check-up after his second removal from the islands, veterinarians found that he developed cataracts in both eyes, and would most likely not survive in the wild, so at age 3, he moved into his exhibit at the Waikiki Aquarium.
This month, Hoailona is taking a yearlong trip to the University of Santa Cruz to participate in a hearing study of Hawaiian monk seals. During that time, the aquarium will repair the peeling surface of his habitat to make sure it’s safe for his return.
Despite not getting a chance to see Hoailona, Angel Casas, a recent visitor from Los Angeles, said he enjoyed his trip to the aquarium.
“I think it’s great that he’s an ambassador for this species, and he can participate in research that might help understand and help the conservation of that species in the wild,” Rossiter said.
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Lauren Teruya is a Poynter-Koch reporting fellow for Honolulu Civil Beat. She is a graduate of Iolani School and holds a master's degree in specialized journalism from the University of Southern California. You can reach her at email@example.com.