Long Island Aquarium faces its greatest crisis

COVID-19 isn’t transmittable to marine mammals and fish, but it has the Long Island Aquarium looking square into the face of the greatest crisis in its two-decade history.

The aquarium on East Main Street in Riverhead has been closed to visitors since mid-March because of the coronavirus outbreak, but unlike some other businesses, it cannot close up shop just like that. Animals need to be fed and cared for. Water tanks need to be maintained. The aquarium is also home to the New York Marine Rescue Center.

That means staff needs to be retained to do this work.

And it means revenue isn’t coming in now and for at least the near future. It’s a stressful period for the aquarium.

“It’s a challenging time for everybody,” Long Island Aquarium executive director Bryan DeLuca said in a phone interview. “This is not just isolated to us. It’s a challenging time for everybody. Between the schools closing and mandates, we’re talking millions of dollars in revenue for us that pays the bills. We still have a collection of thousands of species that we have to take care of, and everyone has their own dietary needs, medications.”

In response to the crisis, the company has laid off 90% of its staff of 240 (in the summertime, the aquarium has 475 employees), said Mr. DeLuca. The aquarium has split “A” and “B” staffs for 3 1/2-day work weeks, he said.

Under normal operations, the monthly cost for animal care is $200,000. That has been reduced to about $70,000, according to Mr. DeLuca, who said the aquarium has had to dip into dwindling cash reserves.

“We are making every effort to keep our precious collection healthy with our skilled staff, and we welcome any support we can get from this financial crisis we are facing,” said Mr. DeLuca.

The aquarium, which is to celebrate its 20th birthday in June, has 5,000 animals, including sand tiger sharks, sea lions, penguins, otters and snow monkeys. It has a 20,000-gallon coral reef display that it said is one of the largest all-living coral displays in the western hemisphere. Indoors, one can find a bugs and birds garden with hundreds of free flying butterflies and what the aquarium calls one of the largest collections of living bugs in the country (behind glass). The New York Marine Rescue Center is the only organization in the state that cares for wounded and injured seals, endangered sea turtles, dolphins, porpoises and small toothed whales, aquarium officials said.

A sand tiger shark, one of the 5,000 animals at the Long Island Aquarium. (Credit: Long Island Aquarium)

Many of the animals have been rescued, including two juvenile sea lions that were stranded on California beaches and deemed non-releasable due to an inability to hunt and two owls that were hit by cars and lost vision in one eye, said Darlene Puntillo, the aquarium’s director of marketing and advertising.

The aquarium is also home to African penguins that had been smuggled into John F. Kennedy International Airport about 15 years ago. “We created a habitat for them and have since joined a breeding program to help their population numbers grow,” Ms. Puntillo wrote in an email.

Can any help for the aquarium be found in the $2.2 trillion economic rescue package that President Donald Trump signed into law Friday?

“It has to be digested,” Mr. DeLuca said. “There’s a lot of programs out there. No one wants a loan.”

Mr. DeLuca said TD Bank has pushed the aquarium’s mortgage payments back to July.

Candyce Paparo, the director of animal training, has been with the aquarium since its inception. She has seen the facility deal with hurricanes and blizzards, but nothing like this before. “It is stressful because we don’t ever want to see our team losing hours, losing money for all the hard work they do caring for the animals,” she said, “but we love our facility and we love the animals and we hope the facility can get through this and continue on.”

Elena Zanzarov with one of the penguins she cares for at the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead. (Credit: Long Island Aquarium)

Through GoFundMe, the aquarium is asking for donations. The aquarium is also on a cyber membership drive. One-year memberships purchased online won’t take effect until the guest’s first visit. Those memberships come with 10% discounts in the aquarium’s cafe, gift shops and adventures and events, said Ms. Puntillo.

Mr. DeLuca said none of his staff have come down with the coronavirus.

“It’s a very complex operation that requires staff,” he said. “We’re in a very precarious situation if anybody got sick. This is a core group of skilled, educated workers to take care of these animals.”

Normally, spring break is a “huge time” for the aquarium, as are the months of April and May when school trips are made to the aquarium, said Mr. DeLuca. Between March and the end of May, he said, the aquarium would have drawn about 60,000 visitors, many of whom would also be stopping at the aquarium’s cafe and two gift shops.

Of course, the animals themselves don’t know anything about coronavirus.

“Their daily routines have remained the same and that is our main objective at this point,” Ms. Puntillo said. “To keep happy and healthy animals and wait until we can open and share them with our friends again.”