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The creatures at the Belle Isle Aquarium look forward to your visit

Beenish Ahmed
Michigan Radio

The Belle Isle Aquarium will reopen on Friday, relieving the ennui that has set in among fish, eels, and frogs since the building closed to visitors last March as a response to the onset of the pandemic. 

"The fish actually react to people so there's a lot of enrichment with people coming by and seeing them and then when no one was around, they just kind of become lethargic,” said Dr. Paul Shuert, a curator at the Aquarium. “There's no excitement for them."

To keep the animals entertained during the 16-month closure, staff painted on the glass of their tanks. But that’s not to say that there wasn’t any activity inside the building. 

The Belle Isle Conservancy, which oversees the Aquarium, made an effort to renovate the facility while its doors were closed to the public. The Conservancy spent $1.2 million to update the facility, which was the first aquarium in the country when it opened in 1904. 

Some of the funds went toward refurbishing the building, which was designed by famed Detroit architect Albert Kahn. The Conservancy restored the dulled tiles on the arched ceilings of the buildings to the luster that was originally intended to evoke an underwater experience. 

Michele Hodges, who heads the Conservancy, said the pandemic-imposed closure offered an “opportunity” to make some much-needed upgrades to the aging building. “You'll see the evidence of that and the beauty of the tanks, which are crystal clear.” 

She also pointed to three new exhibits, including her favorite, which features a variety of axolotl, or “walking fish” that Hodges said might resemble mud puppies to some locals. 

Hodges said the Conservancy has also raised additional funds for a suspended dock that will serve as an educational site over Lake Takoma, which sits within Belle Isle. 

The Aquarium was closed to the public in 2005 due to the economic downturn. The Belle Isle Conservancy reopened the site in late 2012. 

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Beenish Ahmed is Michigan Public's Criminal Justice reporter. Since 2016, she has been a reporter for WNYC Public Radio in New York and also a freelance journalist. Her stories have appeared on NPR, as well as in The New Yorker, Harper’s, The Atlantic, VICE and The Daily Beast.
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