Sea turtle sculpture unveiled at Riverhead’s aquarium honoring NY Marine Rescue Center

Two years ago, while studying a model of a 2-foot-long sea turtle, artist Eli Fishman, who oversees exhibits at the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead, and Bryan DeLuca, its executive director, came up with a vision: Create a giant sea turtle replica — one that would capture the public’s attention and educate visitors about these endangered reptiles.

“How about making it 8 feet long, Bryan?” Mr. Fishman asked. “No, it’s not big enough,” Mr. DeLuca replied. Even 10 feet didn’t do the trick, so Mr. Fishman suggested 12 feet. “No, I want 14 feet,” came the response.

That turned out to be the magic number, and after 1,400 hours of designing, scaling up, engineering, melting, molding and welding stainless steel and colored acrylic, a shimmering greenish-blue turtle statue, seemingly swimming in steel sea grass, was unveiled June 10 at the front of the aquarium.

“We both work full time so it was a lot of evenings and weekends to finish the turtle,” said Mr. Fishman.

“This amazing turtle honors and pays tribute to the great work that the [New York] Marine Rescue Center does in rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing endangered turtles back into our local waters,” Mr, DeLuca said at a press conference marking the event, which coincided with the 50th anniversary of the 1973 Endangered Species Act and the U.S. Postal Service’s release of the “Protect Sea Turtle” stamps series, designed to raise awareness about the six sea turtle species found in U.S. waters.

“We’ve rescued over 3,200 sea turtles since we opened,” said Maxine Montello, NYMRC’s executive director. “This turtle represents the four types of turtles in our area: leatherback, green, sea and Kemp’s Ridley. Our goal is to educate the public about the importance of protecting them.”

Mr. Fishman explained the sculpture’s challenging construction. “All the pieces were custom made; every single one had to be secured with steel, which took about four to five hours for each piece,” he said. Illuminating the massive turtle from the inside so the fixtures weren’t visible through the plexiglass was also time-consuming. The oversized installation will join other aquatic sculptures in Milton L. Burns Park on Peconic Avenue as part of Reflextions Riverhead, “a walkable interactive experience” along the riverfront.

Assemblywoman Jodi Giglio (R-Baiting Hollow) was present at the unveiling and pointed out that “people driving by the park will say, ‘What’s that?’ and they’ll want to go into the park and see it.”

“It took an army to build the turtle,” she added, gesturing to the politicians and town workers in attendance.

Ms. Giglio specifically thanked Suffolk County Legislator Catherine Stark, Riverhead Supervisor Tim Hubbard and community development director Dawn Thomas for their help in securing the $200,000 grant needed to create the sculpture.