On a recent sunny afternoon, families pushed strollers past the penguins, sea lions and otters on the Sea Cliffs as construction continued all around. A new world was being built, exhibit by exhibit, incorporating the actual ocean — just 200 yards away — for the first time.
“New York is an ocean city,” said Mr. Dohlin, the director of the aquarium and a vice president of the Wildlife Conservation Society. “We’re surrounded by marine wilderness. And that tends to get overlooked. Great whales are coming through here all the time. It’s as if wolves were running through downtown.”
The aquarium will be more integrated into the boardwalk than it was before, and ocean views — from Jamaica Bay to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge — will be made part of the presentation. Though most visitors will come to see the sharks and marine mammals, Mr. Dohlin said he wanted people to leave with a sense of how they could effect environmental change. Displays on the shark-fin trade; a giant fishing net filled with species, like sea turtles, not meant for consumption; and a wall full of plastic and other ocean-polluting garbage will be used as teaching tools, intended to get visitors to pledge how they will make a difference.
Mr. Dohlin has been at the aquarium for 10 years but before that worked in design and construction at the W.C.S. headquarters at the Bronx Zoo for a decade. He studied biology as an undergraduate and architecture in graduate school, and seems perfectly suited to the job at hand.
“This is my favorite part,” Mr. Dohlin said repeatedly as he took a visitor through the winding new corridors and past a crew of 65 workers in hard hats, who were drilling holes in black walls and hammering at ceilings on motorized lifts. He was like an excited child revising his “favorite part” again and again, from the coral reef display — now just a long acrylic tunnel that will eventually hold 120,000 gallons of seawater pulled from 1,500 feet offshore — to the still-unfinished interactive displays, to the empty shark tank still covered in protective cardboard.
He walked past the crawl space that children will be able to climb through under the tank as fish swim above them, past the shark-tagging display, through a tilted room that would soon become a shipwreck, past a representation of the underwater Hudson Canyon, up to a curving eco-walk and a touch tank on the roof, into the plush classroom that overlooked the ocean, and out to five old buildings still waiting to be rebuilt.
The buildings were devastated by the storm, and it will take even longer to rehabilitate and open them as the city and state await funding from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Construction, along with upgrades to the Sea Cliffs exhibit, is estimated at another $80 million and has not even begun. The administrative offices were part of the five buildings, so Mr. Dohlin and his staff have been working out of three trailers behind the aquarium. They’re not the only ones who have been displaced.
About two dozen of the 45 sharks that will be on exhibit are in a temporary display tank, and the others are kept off site. A walrus, Kulu, has been lent to the Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash.
Mr. Dohlin proceeded to an area below the boardwalk open only to staff. “This really is my favorite part,” he said, laughing. Light slanted through the boards above, and giant tanks used for water filtration stood in front of him. “This is the coolest architectural space in the city.”
More money has been spent on life-support systems and upkeep for the animals than on the exhibits, he said. There is a hospital for marine life, a treatment room and a mazelike collection of pipes and tanks that sends the water “back out cleaner than when it came in.”
“This building is jammed like a submarine with infrastructure,” he added, nearly hitting his hard hat on a low-hanging pipe.
Part of the new construction has been making the building safe from future storms. Mr. Dohlin showed off the huge flood doors that sit below the boardwalk, with inflatable edges that make them impervious to leaks. “After what we went through with Sandy,” he said, “this makes me so happy.”