Thirty years later, Baltimore's aquarium has left a nationwide legacy

Tiger sharks glided swift and smooth, moray eels darted into submerged caves and, in a full-blown rain forest re-created indoors, leafy and humid, tropical birds flitted past tamarin monkeys.

John Racanelli, on his first visit to Baltimore's National Aquarium, was nothing short of astounded. Aquariums, he had thought, were dark, dank and strange. This ecological theater was anything but.

Racanelli wasn't just a suit on a business trip. Like many representing other cities that hoped an aquarium might do for their town what this one did for Baltimore, he considered himself a pilgrim. The National Aquarium, that was his shrine.

It was 1984 and as a scout from California's Monterey Bay aquarium project, Racanelli had flown cross-country to take notes on what was considered the best model in the country. He would return to Baltimore a decade later, by then working for Tampa, Fla., another city dreaming of aquarium-sparked urban renewal.

"The aquarium stood there on the Inner Harbor like a beacon," says Racanelli, who just took over the National Aquarium's top post. "Our dream in Tampa was that we could be Baltimore."

In the 30 years since the aquarium opened, tens of millions of visitors have experienced its stories of sea life and global stewardship. Its quixotic tilt on the skyline energized Baltimore's waterfront, dosed the populace with civic pride and lured countless tourists to town. But on this anniversary the National Aquarium's biggest gift might be the one it has given to other cities — inspiration.

In the wake of the National Aquarium's success, similar attractions have opened in Monterey Bay, New Orleans, Charleston, S.C., Tampa, Atlanta, Chattanooga, Tenn., and Long Beach, Calif. — for starters. Though Baltimore's aquarium wasn't the first, industry watchers say it most certainly popularized the modern spin on them and showed the world how, done right, an aquarium could make waves for an entire city.

"It was Baltimore that proved the concept," says Jim Maddy, president and chief executive of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, adding that even at 25 years old, when Baltimore added the Australia exhibit, industry heads turned. "Every aquarium director in North America came to see that."

In the 1970s, Baltimore critics were grumbling about a planned "fish tank," conceived by Robert C. Embry Jr., then the city's housing commissioner, and championed by Mayor William Donald Schaefer, after a visit to Boston's aquarium, then considered the country's newest and best.

Baltimore's $21 million facility, completed in just three years — under Schaefer's stern do-it-now decree — opened on Aug. 8, 1981. Much to the relief of Kathy Sher, then the aquarium's fledgling marketing director, when she got to work that morning the lines stretched the length of Pratt Street — all the way to Harborplace.

The spotlight's glare was even stronger that day, thanks to Schaefer's stunt a month earlier. The mayor had sworn to doubters that the aquarium would open on time, on July Fourth weekend. When it wasn't ready, he donned an old-fashioned swimsuit and jumped into the seal tank — a moment that, Sher says, "put the aquarium and Baltimore on the world stage."

"That swim," she says, "and that picture of him with the rubber ducky was in every newspaper in the world."

Tickets then were $4.50 for adults. It was about the same for a full day of parking in the Lombard Street garage a few blocks away. And that first year, though Sher had her fingers crossed to get the 650,000 visitors they'd need to break even, more than 1 million people paid to see the show.

Officials and civic leaders from other towns crowded in, too.

Charleston. Monterey. Tampa. New Orleans. Sher greeted many of them personally. She particularly remembers the folks from Des Moines, Iowa, and their obsession with Maryland crab cakes.

"Cities started to come to us. It didn't take very long," says Sher, who's now the aquarium's deputy director of external affairs. "They all came to look at how Baltimore was rebuilt."

Bill Kurtz, then a board member with the effort to bring an aquarium to New Orleans, was one of about 80 people from that city who flew to Baltimore and stayed for a three-day Inner Harbor immersion. Ron Forman, head of the New Orleans-based Audubon Nature Institute, had just met Schaefer, who assured him if Baltimore could pull off an aquarium, his city surely could.

Though tourism in New Orleans flourished, the city envied the families flocking to downtown Baltimore for the G-rated aquarium, Maryland Science Center and Harborplace. As Kurtz puts it: "We needed to capture the day. God knows we'd captured the night."

Schaefer volunteered to go to New Orleans to help Forman campaign for a bond referendum to pay for the $45 million attraction, which would be built where shipping warehouses were taking up prime waterfront property in the French Quarter. But to win people's support, Forman had only to tell New Orleans to look to Baltimore to see what an aquarium could do. The referendum won with an unheard-of margin for a tax increase — 72 percent. Schaefer never had to make the trip.

The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans opened in 1990 to record crowds, boasting 2.4 million in attendance just that first year.

"We were definitely more than influenced, we were inspired by the success of Baltimore," says Kurtz, who is now the Audubon's chief of staff. "We used as much of it as would fit in our model."

In Chattanooga during the 1980s, abandoned buildings spoiled the view of the Tennessee River, creating a depressed, derelict district that, despite its perch on the edge of downtown, people avoided, especially at night.

"Baltimore had just demonstrated that by investing in a forgotten or neglected downtown area with a connection to water it could revitalize the whole downtown," says Jackson Andrews, director of husbandry and operations for the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, which opened in that area in 1992.

Chattanooga borrowed heavily from Baltimore's concept — hiring the same architect, building a strikingly similar glass pyramid on top and bringing on board key National Aquarium staff, including Andrews, an aquarist then, and his boss, Bill Flynn.

Long Beach civic leaders like Doug Otto, who in the 1990s chaired a long-range planning committee for the city's neglected waterfront, also wanted the Baltimore success story. The city had what he calls, "just a beach." He wanted a beach, but with entertainment, shops, restaurants and hotels — a spot for people to visit, linger and spend money.

The city had just lost its naval shipyard. Plans for a Disney theme park had fallen through. So when the Aquarium of the Pacific opened in 1998, Otto and others on his team prayed it would infuse their tired Rainbow Harbor with Inner Harbor-esque vitality.

Though the aquarium has been a hit, drawing more than 1 million people a year, the prosperity has yet to spread along the harbor. The shopping and retail components of Otto's plan struggle still.

"I think lots of development has subsequently happened based on the model Baltimore pushed forward," Otto says. But in Long Beach, "the project had not been as successful as hoped for."

Racanelli, who worked as Monterey Bay Aquarium's marketing director and as CEO of The Florida Aquarium at Tampa Bay, agrees that Baltimore's offspring didn't always live up to expectations.

In Tampa, he says, it took years after the aquarium was built before any true development spark lit on the bay. "It was shocking how long some of it took," he says. "The aquarium was lonely out there on the edge of this water point. Nothing around it, just open space."

In Monterey Bay, its science-minded aquarium certainly helped re-imagine Cannery Row, which John Steinbeck, in his book of that name, famously wrote: "Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise. …" But while Baltimore embraced its deluxe fish tank with pride, Californians never really did. "The community," Racanelli says, "didn't recognize the treasure."

Now, as he leads the National Aquarium to its next milestone, Racanelli hopes people will be looking to the institution as another type of model: for conservation.

The aquarium will always be an attraction, he hopes, remaining a tourism magnet and economic draw for Baltimore. But behind the scenes, the organization will be working on projects to clean the Chesapeake Bay, restore wetlands and protect endangered species. He hopes other cities and other aquariums will imitate that, too.

"The world we live in today is a very different world from the one when the aquarium opened 30 years ago. The ocean had gone from infinite resource to something we know is finite," he says. "We're trying to help people gain the appreciation for that. Ultimately, that's why we're here."