After being mostly closed for the past five years, a refurbished Bar Harbor museum that features marine creatures has reopened with new exhibits, owners and a new mission.
The new Oceanarium and Education Center, which now specifically includes education as part of its mission, opened on May 17 and will operate through late October. This is the first time it has been open for a season in five years.
Located on Route 3 roughly a mile from the causeway that connects Mount Desert Island to the mainland, The Oceanarium was sold in January 2021 to a new not-for-profit entity. It was previously owned by a local family for nearly 50 years. David and Aubrey Mills founded the Oceanarium in 1972 in Southwest Harbor before moving it to its current location in 1990.
The last time the Oceanarium operated for a full summer season was in 2017, according to museum staff. It remained mostly closed from 2018 through 2020, with only a few sporadic weekends when it opened to guests.
Since purchasing the Oceanarium two years ago, the new owner has been upgrading exhibits and, just last summer, won voter approval for a zoning change that will allow the museum to raise the height of some of its buildings.
That work hasn’t happened yet.
“For the most part everything has been refurbished,” said Meghann Harris, the Oceanarium’s operations and community relations manager. “We have a group of 76 kids running around out there right now.”
Reopening the museum has not been easy. Just changing up the exhibits in the existing buildings required electrical and plumbing upgrades, and finding contractors that were available to do the work has been difficult, she said.
“It was in disrepair when we got it,” Harris said. “It took us a while to find electricians and plumbers who could help us.”
The Oceanarium is located on a 19-acre waterfront property that fronts a tidal salt marsh off Thomas Bay. It has a currently unused outdoor tank — left over from when a small zoo called Aqualand occupied the site — that needs work, and three buildings: a visitor’s center and gift shop, a former lobster hatchery that currently hosts marine-related exhibits, and an Aquaria building with indoor tanks of live sea creatures from the Gulf of Maine.
The Aquaria building has a new larger touch tank where, with the help of staff, visitors can get the chance to touch hermit crabs, sea cucumbers, sea stars, scallops, sea urchins and other small creatures. There are several other tanks that contain unusually-colored lobsters, lumpfish, green crabs, sea anemones and other creatures.
The museum still has an indoor lobster boat, but it’s now a play area for children instead of being used as a demonstration model for how lobstermen ply their trade as it was previously. It also has a large tank from the New England Aquarium — thanks to a $5,000 donation from Witham Family Hotels — that it plans to turn into a home for jellyfish such as moon jellies and comb jellies.
“It’s huge,” Harris said. “[The tank] weighs 800 pounds.”
Harris said the museum was busy on Memorial Day weekend. To help draw more visitors and to raise funds, it is planning to hold an ocean festival on Saturday, June 10. In addition to its regular exhibits, the festival will feature a keynote talk by expedition scientist Rachel Miller, a puppet performance by the Frogtown Mountain Puppeteers, and live music by Bee Parks and the Hornets. There also will be a craft fair, carnival games, a dunk tank and a silent auction.
Harris said there has been a lot of local enthusiasm for reopening the Oceanarium after it was dormant for five years. The museum had no problem finding local residents to fill its staff positions, she said, and it hopes to again become a seasonal fixture for tourists and people who live nearby.
“It’s amazing to have it reopen,” Harris said. “We’re thinking we’re going to be quite busy this summer.”