This summer welcomes in the 15th anniversary of the Long Island Aquarium and Exhibition Center in Riverhead.
On June 19, the aquarium dedicated the iconic whale that stands in front of the main building to James Bissett III, a founder of the aquarium, who passed away in 2011. Executive director Bryan DeLuca said, “The whale was the first thing people see when they walk into the aquarium and the last thing they see on the way out making it perfect for the memorial of Jimmy Bissett. It leaves guests with his vision.”
The conception of the idea for the aquarium goes back some 20 years. DeLuca said of Bissett, “He felt, being a Long Islander—born and raised and living on an island surrounded by water —that he wanted to raise awareness of the local waters and aquatic, marine life.”
It took several years for Bissett to recruit the needed team to set his vision in motion. Friends with the Petrocelli family, Bissett had the aid and resources to start construction in late spring of 1999. Originally, Bissett was looking at other towns, such as Port Jefferson, for the site of the museum, but environmental concerns and space availability eventually led him to Riverhead, conveniently located by the Peconic River where an existing water tour boat was already in place.
On June 15, 2000, the facility was officially opened as Atlantis Marine World. It was the first large-scale aquarium to be established in New York State in more than 35 years.
When the Hyatt Place East End opened next door in conjunction with the aquarium in 2011, the name of the aquarium underwent a change to Long Island Aquarium and Exhibition Center. “The place is part of the namesake,” Deluca said. “We felt ‘Atlantis’ might not be recognized. But now that Long Island is in the name, guests will be able to find and remember it organically. It becomes an icon of Long Island.” Certainly an icon, the Long Island Aquarium has accommodated well over a million visitors with its interactive exhibits and educational offerings.
The acquirement of species for display and educational purposes began with the team collecting sharks off Jones Beach. Now exhibiting multiple species of exotic animals, the Long Island Aquarium houses sea lions, penguins, sharks, porcupines, an assortment of reptiles, insects and thousands of fish and other aquatic life.
The butterfly exhibit was part of the Hyatt addition and allows guests to walk through an indoor space and observe species not commonly found in a backyard garden—just be careful not to walk out with them as they free-fly around guests. Moving through the butterfly exhibit also leads to an interactive encounter with exotic parrots. Sea otters can be found toward the back of the outdoor section of the aquarium. Guests can also stop to see the Japanese macaques or the American alligators on their way. The penguin enclosure now allows guests to sign up for a close and personal encounter with the feathery fellows while on the second-floor, off to the left of the shark tank, a new marmoset exhibit has been built. Individuals can watch these amazing mammals swing from ropes that are used for their enrichment.
The aquarium is still expanding. Just across the road, a new restaurant and overnight accommodations for Hyatt guests are in the works. DeLuca commented, “The town needs to come to a full revitalization and when that happens we can come to realize our full potential.” The Long Island Aquarium’s influence is far from dwindling. Bissett’s efforts continue to grow with each visitor who steps through those doors to experience an up-close connection with the animals and marine life, and with every guest who rests at the Hyatt.
“He was definitely a visionary,” DeLuca said, “A giving individual, he’s left his mark on the Island with this whole destination.”