A marine museum on Mount Desert Island that has been closed for the past couple of years is expected to open again next June with a new owner and expanded offerings.
A newly formed nonprofit, Oceanarium and Education Center, bought the 19-acre waterfront property on Route 3 in Bar Harbor in January for $600,000, according to Bar Harbor assessing records. It’s headed up by Jeff Cumming. Previous owners, the Mills Family, had owned and operated the museum since 1972.
Initially located in Southwest Harbor, Oceanarium moved to its Bar Harbor location in 1990.
When the museum reopens next summer, it will be the only ocean-themed museum on Mount Desert Island, which each year attracts millions of visitors who come to see Acadia National Park and the surrounding coastal scenery.
Although seasonal tour boats in Bar Harbor take tourists out into Frenchman Bay and the Gulf of Maine to view seals, porpoises, whales and other creatures, there is no place on MDI dedicated to teaching tourists more about marine life.
Another marine attraction, the Bar Harbor Whale Museum, is owned by College of the Atlantic and has been mothballed for the past decade. Hotel firm Bar Harbor Resorts bought the downtown property where that museum was located and re-developed it and several abutting properties into the West Street Hotel.
On its campus, COA owns and operates the small Dorr Museum of Natural History, which has a marine touch tank and a wide variety of animal specimens, but it currently is not open to the public because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Oceanarium’s reopening will fill a void in the area.
Cumming said he has been in discussions with representatives of the college and Allied Whale, COA’s marine research entity, about displaying some of the collection that the college currently has in storage. Chief among these is the skeleton of Piccolina, a 28-foot humpback whale, that used to be on display at the Bar Harbor Whale Museum.
Cumming said he and COA have yet to work out a formal agreement, but he is confident that the college will loan Piccolina’s skeleton to the Oceanarium, and perhaps some other taxidermied sea creatures or seabirds as well.
“That’s the hope,” Cumming said. “We’ve already had a yellow lobster donated to us.”
It’s spending the winter at the Maine State Aquarium in Boothbay Harbor, he added.
Cumming, a Wiscasset native and Freeport resident whose family owns a summer home in Trenton, said they have been fans of the Oceanarium for years — his young daughters especially. When the Mills family decided to put the 19-acre waterfront property on the market two years ago, Cumming wanted to continue their mission of educating people about Maine’s marine life. He previously served as the executive director of SailMaine in Portland for 8 years.
“The idea that it might be developed was one reason that we bought it,” Cumming said of the property, which is surrounded on three sides by salt marsh and includes a small network of trails with views of Mount Desert Narrows. “The Mills’ are happy that our mission is to continue their work.”
Cumming has a few small changes in mind for the Oceanarium.
He plans to reduce the size of its lobster hatchery, located in one of 5 buildings on the property, in order to make more exhibition space available. He also hopes to double the size of its touch tank, where staff keep live starfish and sea cucumbers and other creatures — and which is one of the museum’s major attractions.
Cumming would also like to raise the ceiling height of one of the buildings so he can suspend Piccolina’s skeleton overhead while visitors walk around below it. The current ceiling in that one-story building is only 8 feet high, he said. But that project will be on hold for a bit.
The Oceanrium property is zoned residential, and the museum is a non-conforming use in that zone. Cumming said he cannot make any changes that might increase the footprint or volume of the existing buildings, most of which date to when the site was home to a wildlife park called Aqualand, before the Mills family purchased it, until a zoning change is made.
Cumming said he is scheduled to meet with the town’s planning board on Wednesday, Dec. 1 to discuss rezoning the Oceanarium as a marine research property, which is how the Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory is zoned. If the planning board endorses the idea, voters then would have to approve the change next June. That would prevent him from increasing the size of any of the existing buildings until 2023.
“It’s a more appropriate zone,” he said of classifying the museum as a marine research property, rather than residential. “The purpose of the Oceanarium is to show people marine science and to instill in them a love of the ocean.”