Coney Island’s New York Aquarium fully reopens after decade of post-Sandy repairs and renovations

people look at seal at new york aquarium
The New York Aquarium’s newest exhibit “Sea Change” features underwater viewings of some of their resident marine animals, pictured here with a California sea lion.
Photo by Julie Larsen Maher

Ten years worth of work to restore the New York Aquarium to its pre-Sandy glory is finally complete, and all public exhibits are open to the public as of July 1 — including a never-before-scene exhibit called “Sea Change.”

“Today is a significant milestone in the recovery of New York City’s only aquarium,” said John F. Calvelli, the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Executive Vice President of public affairs. “The devastation from Superstorm Sandy a decade ago is almost unimaginable when looking today at the beautiful exhibits and thriving marine wildlife. As a cornerstone of the Coney Island community and an important economic driver, it is a wonderful feeling to be fully reopened.”

The Coney Island aquarium, operated by the New York-based Wildlife Conservation Society, closed its doors for several months after experiencing severe flooding during the 2012 superstorm. It reopened about a third of its campus in 2013 while continuing to restore its other buildings, exhibits and critical life support systems, and working with city and state officials on future resiliency planning and storm mitigation.

fish swim in large tank at new york aquarium
The New York Aquarium saw severe flooding during Superstorm Sandy, and buildings had to be renovated one-by-one to ensure their resident animals’ safety. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher

“The New York Aquarium bore the full force of Superstorm Sandy’s devastation, but we never lost faith that together, we could bring this amazing institution back. With today’s incredible milestone, we’ve proved yet again that New Yorkers working together can achieve great things,” said New York City Cultural Affairs Commissioner Laurie Cumbo, who joined aquarium officials at the July 1 reopening along with state Comptroller Tom DiNapoli.

“We’re so proud to invest in this cultural organization that does so much to teach our young people about our ecosystem and to open their eyes to the wonders and beauty of our planet,” Cumbo said. “I also want to thank our partners in the federal government for stepping up to help restore our city’s only aquarium.” 

Now, for the first time since Superstorm Sandy, visitors can check out all of the exhibits the aquarium has to offer, including “Sea Change” — the cherry on top of the decades-long renovation — which explores the earth’s changing climate, and how it impacts marine ecosystems and ocean life.

“Sea Change” occupies the space below the aquarium’s “Sea Cliffs” and features underwater viewing of their resident California sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters and African penguins.

penguin swims in greenish water at new york aquarium
An African Penguin taking a swim at the fully-restored and reopened New York Aquarium. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher

Each of the marine museum’s buildings and exhibits had to be restored one at a time to keep their animals safe. Exhibits gradually opened to the public over the last decade, beginning with the long-awaited “Ocean Wonders: Sharks” debuting in the main building in 2018 — an expansion that was planned prior to the hurricane but suffered massive delays due to the storm.

“Spineless,” the first exhibit to reopen in a restored building, opened in 2020, and the Playquarium debuted in 2022 in the same building, after its opening was delayed by the pandemic. The Seaside Cafe also reopened in 2022 after incurring severe damage during Sandy.

The renovation had its silver lining, said aquarium officials — the work also improved infrastructure that ensures the safety of animals during future storm events. Those updates include new moving water pumps, filters and other parts of the aquarium’s life support systems above flood level, as well as the installation of generators to prevent power outages from shutting down any critical systems. 

“This reopening is testament to the resiliency of the New York Aquarium, the staff, the Coney Island community, and the City of New York,” said Craig Piper, the director of the Wildlife Conservation Society city zoos and interim director of the New York Aquarium. “Not only have we now fully reopened our exhibits, but we have also upgraded much of the aquarium’s infrastructure and critical systems to ensure we are better prepared to withstand future storms.”

And the newest exhibit, “Sea Change,” does more than just teach visitors about climate change. It also plays into the aquarium’s work to do its part in curbing the warming of the planet by entering a pact with other public aquariums to bring its operations to carbon neutrality, meaning it will use the carbon it emits so that no excess carbon is released into the atmosphere.