By DIANE S. WILLIAMS
The Wildlife Conservation Society reopened the New York Aquarium July 1, after completing a 10-year, $65 million renovation funded by FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Superstorm Sandy nearly wiped out the Coney Island aquarium, but Brooklyn’s aquatic science center is back, rebuilt, and better prepared for future storms. Local 1501’s dedicated crews of Animal Keepers, Maintainers, Attendants, Security Guards and Unit Managers helped America’s oldest aquarium survive the storm of the century.
As Sandy made landfall in New York City on Oct. 29, 2012, Aquarium staff busily worked to protect sea animals from drowning in the sewage and salty ocean waters that submerged the 14-acre site. It was all hands on deck.
“We worked around the clock to save the animals,” said Ralph Ramos, New York Aquarium Maintainer and Local 1501 Vice President. “Sandy nearly destroyed the calibrated fish tanks when it knocked out power to our buildings.”
“We remained on site 24/7 to operate gas generators since there was no power in the neighborhood for months,” said Wayne Stempler, an Animal Keeper who retired in May after 33 years. “Thick glass blocks from bathrooms in the Rockaways washed into the aquarium. The water came up through the street sewers. It lasted about an hour or two, but the destruction took 10 years to recover.”
Ramos, Stempler, and the late Bill Sheehan were part of the unionized Aquarium staff who repaired Sandy’s extensive damage and preserved the lives of 350 species of sea animals housed in tanks 10 gallons to 90,000 gallons in size, including 18, well-fed sharks.
“We rigged oxygen lines that bubbled air in slowly to keep the sea animals alive,” Stempler said.
To their credit, very few animals were lost to Sandy. The hard work and dedication of Local 1501 allowed the Wildlife Conservation Society to reopen parts of the New York Aquarium just six months after Sandy.
Then in 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought new challenges. Aquarium management split staff into two crews and assigned alternating schedules.
“We worked together to protect our coworkers’ health and keep the aquarium operational,” said Michele Winship, Animal Keeper and Senior Aquarist.
Mayor Bill de Blasio classified Aquarium Attendants and concession staff as nonessential workers. They were then laid off.
“The union fought to have these workers redeployed,” said Raul Domenech, Local 1501 President. “Eventually, all were called back to the aquarium.”
Since the July 1 reopening, the New York Aquarium welcomes a steady stream of visitors to its new interactive exhibits. Spectators get an up-close view into the world of underwater habitats. The long-awaited exhibit Ocean Wonders: Sharks! features a livestream of the fearsome fish.
Winship and other Animal Keepers sustainably breed and care for the aquarium’s diverse collection of fish, sea mammals, and invertebrates like jellyfish, octopus, cuttlefish, and coral. There are leggy Japanese spider crabs that span 12 feet and a rare orange lobster, a special gift to the collection.
“It may sound cliché, but one of the best parts of my job is seeing the awe and joy these sea creatures bring to the families and school children who visit,” Winship said.
“We do the vitally important work of teaching visitors young and old just how connected and dependent we are to nature and to the sea,” Ramos said. “What happens in the oceans and to the oceans affects us all.”
Scientists say marine ecosystems and ocean life are as important to human life as air.
“I am so proud of our members who continue to go above and beyond to keep afloat this rarest of cultural gems, the New York Aquarium, for everyone to enjoy,” Domenech said.