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Hooking the spectators


David Pittenger stands on a boulder amid the steamy confines of the National Aquarium's rain forest, one of his favorite places to chill out, and weighs a few possibilities.

Imagine, the aquarium's executive director says, a storm rolling in -- thunderclaps, lightning, heavy rains. For the benefit of the visitors, of course, with a little help from special effects like strobes, artificial fog, torrents of water falling onto the trees, even a little on the walkways.

"Just enough to get people wet, then the storm would pass," Mr. Pittenger says.

Or consider the appeal of jellyfish -- not washed up on the beach or jolting unsuspecting swimmers, but in an exhibit that shows them as humans rarely see them.

"I tell you, jellyfish are great," Mr. Pittenger says with a gleam in his eyes. "What you see is this kind of gooky thing lying on the beach, but when you combine the proper lighting and sound and see these animals moving, they're so graceful. It's almost otherworldly if you can capture that."

And the Chesapeake Bay, subject of endless hand-wringing, and inspiration for the "Save the Bay" mantra? The aquarium could depict, in graphic terms, man's toll on the God-given treasure, with side-by-side exhibits showing once-pristine habitats with clear waters next to the murky bay beset by pollution and overfishing.

The ideas keep coming, as they must, if the visitors are to keep coming, says Mr. Pittenger, who took the helm at the aquarium in January.

The popularity of the National Aquarium in Baltimore -- crown jewel of the Inner Harbor, destination for more than 20 million visitors in its 14 years -- presents a paradoxical challenge: The aquarium, now so familiar to residents of the area, needs to constantly look for ways to keep visitors coming back.

"It's probably our greatest challenge: 'Been there, done that,' " Mr. Pittenger says.

A recent survey conducted by the aquarium bears that out. Asked why they hadn't returned for a few years, Mr. Pittenger says, many responded, " 'Well, we're waiting for something new.' They're not sure what it is, but they need something new."

They'll get it, Mr. Pittenger says, but he's unsure precisely what and when. The director and the aquarium's governing board have just begun sifting through ideas for the next decade to maintain the appeal among return visitors, create new revenue sources and foster the education and conservation missions.

The jellyfish exhibit, which could open by next spring, may be among the earliest likely additions to Maryland's most popular paid attraction.

It would be one of a series of two-year changing exhibits -- possibly including sharks and venomous, deep-sea creatures -- and help launch what Mr. Pittenger hopes will become a partnership with other aquariums.

The New England Aquarium in Boston would provide the jellyfish, as part of a partnership that would involve exchange of exhibits, specimens and expertise with other aquariums. Mr. Pittenger is also considering working with aquariums in Chicago, Monterey, Calif., New Orleans and Chattanooga, Tenn., none of which compete directly with Baltimore's.

Chattanooga's aquarium, for instance, manufactures its own T-shirts, and could easily create ones for Baltimore's as part of a business partnership, Mr. Pittenger says. The National Aquarium, turn, could sell its videos, CD-ROMs and other products at other aquariums. A line of home-aquarium products, such as sea salt used in water, could be licensed by Baltimore's aquarium and sold at others in the nation.

Licensing products and seeking a broader market for National Aquarium items such as a toy frog that includes a message about saving the rain forest would not only increase revenue but also boost the aquarium's name-recognition nationwide, Mr. -Z Pittenger says.

Another possible answer, he says, is the information superhighway. Mr. Pittenger and the aquarium's board are hashing out how they should present the attraction on the World Wide Web of the Internet. Beyond providing an introduction to the aquarium, the "web site" could offer computer users information on rain forests, coral reefs and conservation efforts.

Mr. Pittenger, 46, who was named executive director in December 1994, takes the education and conservation goals of the aquarium seriously.

To him, the aquarium serves as a gigantic classroom for the masses, a place to gaze at the creatures -- and to walk out a bit more aware of what imperils them.

He learned to appreciate them as a kid who collected snakes and spent his summers at a Philadelphia wildlife preserve; as a college student working summers as a naturalist and teacher caring for raccoons, owls and reptiles at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences; as a diving addict exploring the reefs off New Jersey, Florida and the Bahamas; and as a ranger in Florida's Everglades.

At the aquarium, Mr. Pittenger says, education masquerades as entertainment.

Visitors stare at the sharks and other all manner of other fish. They also learn how overfishing and pollution have virtually closed north Atlantic Ocean fisheries. They savor the coral reef while listening to soft background music, and learn of man's toll on the Florida Keys reefs, ravaged shells of what they once were. They listen to the birds and wild animals in the rain forest, and learn that real rain forests may disappear.

By next spring, they'll see jellyfish in a whole different light -- literally -- and learn that sea turtles die when they mistake plastic bags for jellyfish and eat them.

Unlike some aquarium directors, he has no formal training in mammalogy or biology. But he had what the aquarium's board sought when it replaced Nicholas Brown this year.

In fact, the board interviewed no candidates other than Mr. Pittenger, who joined the aquarium in 1978, two years before its opening, as education director.

"He had what we were looking for," said James A. Flick Jr., the board's chairman. "He was a known quantity and, I think, most important, he really understands the role and importance of the National Aquarium in Baltimore.

"Dave understands the balance that we're achieving between economic development, education and conservation."

Mr. Pittenger, who lives in Cockeysville with his wife, Twig George, and two daughters, earned a bachelor's degree in 1971 from Cornell University (where he kept caged venomous snakes in his dorm room) and a master's in education from the University of Pennsylvania.

Except for a two-year stint as director of a planned Portland, Maine, aquarium, he has worked since 1978 at Baltimore's aquarium. Coming up through the ranks, he learned the inner workings of the aquarium. As deputy director, he oversaw construction of the $40 million marine pavilion and about $20 million in other improvements, paid for by the city, the state and private contributions.

Today, the aquarium, which cost the city $21.3 million to build, draws from every state and dozens of countries. It takes in $20.4 million in revenue each year and has an operating budget of nearly $19 million. Aquarium visitors, state officials estimate, spend another $130 million at nearby hotels, restaurants and other attractions.

But it's no time to get complacent, Mr. Pittenger says.

After all, there's a new children's center idea to consider -- a place where they could touch rays, feel the skin of a sharks and conduct experiments. Or perhaps, an IMAX theater or animated show to introduce visitors to the wonders of the deep. Or an outdoor exhibit featuring eels, crabs and bluefish in the harbor. Or a riverbank with vantage points above and below water to take in piranhas, alligators and South American snakes.

Or . . .

Maybe it's time to head to the rain forest to sort it all out and dream a little bit.

Aquarium facts

Opened: 1981

Operator: the National Aquarium in Baltimore Inc.

Cost of construction: $21.3 million

Cost of expansions, renovations: About $60 million for projects including the seven-level Marine Mammal Pavilion, the Atlantic Coral Reef and the Open Ocean exhibits.

Funding sources: Admissions, other revenue cover annual operating costs. State, city, private contributions cover much of construction cost.

Annual visitors: 1.5 million

Revenue: $20.4 million/year

Operating budget: About $19 million

Economic impact: $130 million/year (spending at hotels, restaurants, other attractions, etc.)

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