Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Solution Man: Bringing the Exploration Center & Aquarium back to life

How a Bay-loving naturalist helped bring the Exploration Center & Aquarium back to life       

Peter Hanney
Communications Director
John Haley got the call while on a business trip to the Monterey Aquarium.  “We need your help; you gotta come back!” It was Mike Russo, the facilities manager for Save The Bay, calling to ask John for help after Superstorm Sandy barreled through southern New England on October 29, 2012. The Exploration Center & Aquarium at Easton’s Beach in Newport, which had served as a local educational institution for thousands of Rhode Island children, had been knocked out of commission.

The day after the storm, Save The Bay staff returned to the beachfront facility to survey the damage. Three to four feet of water had pushed through the facility, depositing almost a foot of sand in its wake. “When I saw it for myself, I couldn’t believe it,” recalls John. “The place was a disaster. Sand, water...it was awful.” 

John Haley of
John Haley is Chief Scientific Officer for BioProcessH20, a Portsmouth, Rhode Island-based company that specializes in wastewater treatment solutions. He and his engineers work on multi-million dollar projects for municipal and industrial applications. Devoting the time to getting a small beachfront aquarium back on its feet was not seen as a priority to some of his colleagues, but John, who had a lifelong connection to Narragansett Bay, was able to win them over. “I told them Save The Bay is local. They’re our neighbors, how could we not do it?” recalls John. “I had a lot of spare parts from other projects, so I thought that I could really trick this place out.”

John’s Connection to the Bay

John’s family connection to Narragansett Bay dates back to the Colonial era of Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. “My family was here forever and ever.” His ancestors farmed on Aquidneck Island and kept hogs on Dyer Island, a small island that lies between Portsmouth and Prudence Island. John learned about the history of Narragansett Bay from his grandfather, a Rhode Island historian. 

“He explained to me how Narragansett Bay is an ancient river valley with three big rivers running through it—the West Passage, the East Passage, and the Sakonnet River.” Growing up on the Barrington River, John was never far from the Bay. As a child, he caught fish using a large circular fishing net called a seine. When you live near a river, fish in it, and spend as much time growing up along it like John did, you form a relationship with the river and its inhabitants.

John began keeping a diary of the fish he caught in the Barrington River when he was ten years old. In the decade that he collected data, it became evident to him that the Bay was changing. Since then, John says he has seen a real decline in fish stocks. “There’s a kinship with those creatures, just like you have here at the Exploration Center.” John points to a small, thin fish in one of the tanks. “I caught that pipefish right there. I know his whole life cycle. We have a kinship.”

Sandy’s Destruction

On that fateful day in October of 2012, the storm surge pushed through ocean-facing doors—knocking down displays, desks, and supply shelves—and made its way to the lowest point in the building: the basement. The storm surge caused a power failure, which affected the aquarium life support systems located in the basement, and jeopardized the survival of the marine life in the tanks.

Adam Kovarsky, lead aquarist for Save The Bay, arrived a few hours later to survey the damage. Thankfully, aquarium staff had left battery-powered aerators in the tanks prior to the storm to provide needed oxygen in the event of a power failure. As a result, all of the specimens that were entrusted to him had survived the blow from Sandy. “I had three feet of water and tons of sand in here,” says Adam. “We grabbed buckets and aerators and brought the critters to our Bay Center in Providence. Luckily, Mystic Aquarium and Aquidneck Lobster in Newport were able to take in a few sea creatures, too.”

Birth of the Exploration Center

John’s first foray into the Easton’s Beach aquarium was in 2006. Curt Spalding, then executive director of Save The Bay, and Bridget Kubis Prescott, education director, consulted with John when the New England Aquarium was preparing to sell the facility to Save The Bay. “I arrived on a gray February day,” says John. “There was no heat, and the place was stripped of most of the displays. Curt said to me, ‘What do you think about this place?’ I told him I’d do an analysis and see what we could come up with. 

I remember saying to Bridget, ‘We’ll make it work.’ And we did. I volunteered my services, got it up and running, and my work was done. Or so I thought.” Seven years later, John was repairing the aquarium once again. He took apart the old hardware and replaced it with industrial-grade plumbing. “Save The Bay bought the spare parts, and I volunteered my time to put it all together the best I could,” he recalls. “Every weekend, all 
winter, all spring, early summer, during my vacation, I worked on it around the clock. 

I really tried to do it right, thinking this place would be here for 100 years.” Mike Russo wanted to protect the facility’s life systems from another storm surge, so all of the electrical components had to be on the first floor, not in the basement. John was able to make most of the systems portable, allowing for easy relocation, if needed. He also incorporated redundant systems so that when a failure is detected, another pump will automatically start. 

An emergency air system was installed to protect the fish from loss of air during a power outage. To John, the most important thing at the Exploration Center isn’t the tanks or the pumps or the filtrations system; it’s the enthusiasm of the people here—the volunteers, the staff, and the members who visit the aquarium. 

“People who come here support something because they feel it’s worthwhile, and it’s a good cause,” says John. “You don’t have to be a scientist to appreciate what’s going on. You can work in a dress store, be a baker, whatever. But come here and learn what the Bay is really about from people who feel the same way. You build up a relationship with them, and suddenly you’re an advocate. And you know what? That, to me, is the most important thing.”

Save The Bay is forever grateful to John Haley and Tim Burns of BioProcessH2O, Hayward Pumps of North Kingstown, RI, and the countless volunteers, supporters, and members who helped us bring the Exploration Center & Aquarium back to life.

This was published in the Spring 2014 issue of Tides,
Save The Bay's biannual magazine. 

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