WATER WORLD Anniversary: After 15 years, 20 milion visitors to Baltimore's aquarium can't be wrong.


Fifteen years ago, schoolteacher Marie Tillman walked into Baltimore's brand-spanking-new National Aquarium and offered her services as a volunteer. She's still volunteering.

"I wanted to be here in the beginning because it was the chance of being in on the ground floor," says Tillman, who had retired from her job as an English teacher. The 70-year-old puts in four days a week -- 35 hours -- and has no plan to slow down.

After 15 years, she says, the National Aquarium has developed into even more than she imagined it could be. "Over 15 years, it has grown so much," says Tillman, who has been offered a staff position but prefers the freedom of being a volunteer. "It is constantly changing. And we are more conservation-minded than we were before."

To celebrate its 15th anniversary, the National Aquarium is throwing a party today. There will be a free lunchtime concert at Pier 3 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. with free snacks and music. From 5: 30 p.m. to 8 p.m., the party kicks into full gear, with a free cake-cutting ceremony on the pier.

After 6 p.m., the adult admission price will be $7.50 (a limited number of tickets are available).

The National Aquarium seems such a Baltimore fixture now, while becoming a model for aquariums across the country, that it is hard to believe that in the beginning it was no easy sell. William Donald Schaefer, then a City Council member, broached the subject for the National Aquarium in the mid-1960s. City Councilman Emerson Julian said, "You're talking about a fish tank!" It wasn't until 1976, a decade after it was first presented, that it got on the ballot.

Since the beginning, there have been many notable National Aquarium moments but, perhaps, none more notable than what happened before the actual opening.

As mayor, Schaefer promised to plunge into the seal pool if the National Aquarium wasn't finished by the promised date. It wasn't, and he took the plunge wearing an old-fashioned swimsuit and boater. The much-photographed 1981 event gave Baltimore and the aquarium more publicity than mere money could buy.

In later years, Schaefer has called that dip in the seal pool his "greatest accomplishment" as mayor or governor. "The picture [of that event] made the paper in India," the governor told a Sun reporter. "Not Indiana. India. That's the only time I've ever been in the paper in India."

In May 1994, he swam again in the pool at an aquarium party for Frank A. Gunther Jr., who was stepping down as chairman of the aquarium.

The aquarium did open, of course, and now more than 1.4 million people visit each year. There have been more than 20 million visitors since it opened 15 years ago. Last year was its best ever, with an attendance of 1.63 million. The previous record was set in 1992 with 1.55 million visitors.

"I think the challenges are to have something new to do at the aquarium, to continue to attract the million and a half people every year and continue to serve the community," says David M. Pittenger, the executive director of the aquarium.

"There are new things at the aquarium, and it is important for us to get the word out," he says.

Exhibits at the aquarium include "Jellies: Phantoms of the Deep," featuring seven species of jellyfish; "Wings in the Water," with stingrays, a hawksbill sea turtle and small sharks in a 260,000-gallon pool; and the seal pool.

"There is the new Pacific Coral Reef and, of course, the Atlantic Coral Reef," Pittenger says. "We have a new primitive fishes exhibit which includes garfish. And many people don't know we have a pair of beautiful monkeys running loose in the rain forest."

Other popular attractions are the dolphin shows and the shark exhibits. "This year, we have 10 sharks on display, which is down one shark since last year," he says.

The aquarium takes in about $22 million a year and has an operating budget of $18.2 million and a payroll of about 300.

It's been so successful, the question now is, can the state benefit from two aquariums? There is the possibility the aquarium may open a satellite facility in Ocean City, Pittenger says. The idea is part of the aquarium's 10-year master plan. "The study should be done in the fall," he says. "A decision is on the plate for this year."

The birthday party

The National Aquarium at the Inner Harbor turns 15 today. Celebrations for the "crystal" anniversary include:

11 a.m. to 2 p.m.: A free lunchtime concert on Pier 3. There will be free cupcakes, soda and ice cream for all, along with music provided by the Park Avenue band.

5: 30 p.m. to 8 p.m.: A "crystal" stage will be the backdrop for a free cake cutting ceremony and birthday toast. A wizard and a fortune teller with a crystal ball will entertain along with the Aquarium mascots, Puffin and Sharky.

6 p.m. to 8 p.m.: People admitted for the children's price of $7.50 (a limited number of tickets are available). Inside the aquarium, children ages 5 and older can register to win a chance to touch a dolphin or to peek behind the scenes. "Crystal" surprises await the first 1,500 entrants.

The events are sponsored by WLIF Radio, TCI Communications of Baltimore and Radio One.

For further information, call (410) 576-3800.

Pub Date: 8/08/96

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