BAR HARBOR — The former Mount Desert Oceanarium will reopen this summer as The Oceanarium and Education Center. While it will offer many of the same experiences as it has in previous years, the shift in the name highlights an expanded focus on education.
A first step in reimagining the facility is a zoning change that will come before voters during the town’s annual meeting referendum ballot on June 14. The nonprofit oceanarium is seeking a zoning change from shoreland limited residential district to marine research district. That change, explained Executive Director Jeff Cumming, would allow the property to align better with the historic uses of the property and allow for upgrades to the facility.
Currently the oceanarium consists of nonconforming structures in the shoreland limited residential district, which means that no changes to the facility or existing buildings are allowed as such changes would increase the nonconformity. “We are not looking to expand our overall footprint,” said Cumming, “but we want to restore what we have.”
As an example, the oceanarium is in possession of a 28-foot humpback whale skeleton named Piccolina (on loan from College of the Atlantic) that it would like to exhibit. Unless an existing building can be renovated allowing for attic space to be opened into a cathedral ceiling, the skeleton will be difficult to display.
While smaller renovations would be allowed in the marine district, any significant changes would be subject to land use regulations and Planning Board approval.
The town’s marine research district was created in 1995 to accommodate growth at the MDI Biological Laboratory and the lab is the only property to be included. Other properties included in the district do not have to be contiguous.
The reimagined Oceanarium and Education Center plans to expand its offerings and exhibits with an emphasis on the local ecology. “We plan to focus on the Gulf of Maine and the local ocean ecology with an emphasis on how humans interact with it,” said Cumming. This includes not only the critters found along Maine’s coast such as lobsters, crabs and urchins, but also shore and marine birds, as well as education around Dark Sky initiatives.
The shift to a marine research district also fits with the nonprofit’s new mission and goals of providing “educational exhibits and programs for all ages on local ecology, marine biology and research, citizen science, dark skies, fisheries and aquaculture, and STEM education in partnership with Maine schools.”
The oceanarium plans to host and engage school groups and partner with other area organizations and will support science in-house by employing a scientist who will conduct research in real time at the facility.
Cumming said that there is a team of people hard at work trying to get the oceanarium up and running. Right now, a new life support system for the aquaria system is being installed to accommodate additional capacity, including a touch tank that is about three times larger than the one that had been there previously.
“We are hoping to be open in late June, but July might be more realistic,” said Cumming, who added that during this first summer, the oceanarium would continue to increase its offerings and work on its facility with the goal of being completely open with a full slate of programs and exhibits in 2023.
“The idea is that not a lot will change – certainly not initially,” he continued. “We want to reopen, and if this zoning change is approved by voters, we will work to restore this great facility.”