In November 2019, I interviewed David Rosenberg of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. At the time, he was the outgoing Chair of the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions (IAAPA) and was about to hand the gavel or sword or whatever IAAPA Chairs hand over to Amanda Thompson of Blackpool Pleasure Beach.
A few weeks later, Michelle, my then-girlfriend, and I visited the Aquarium. It was my first time – which is saying a lot. I’ve been to hundreds of aquariums and to Monterey dozens of times, but this aquarium had become my elusive white whale. Plans to visit had never worked out. Yet here I was, finally. experiencing the wonders within. I made a video, because, after all, I wouldn’t have been here had it not been for the interview. Thus, this was at its core a work trip.
As I stood there, staring at the sunfish, feeling myself in the midst of the deep ocean, I had a life-changing moment. I wanted to return the following Summer and propose there, in front of that tank, to Michelle.
But then the unforeseen took place. On March 12, 2020, the aquarium closed, for what it anticipated to be no more than fifteen days. Those fifteen days stretched on to months, then a year, then longer. The engagement was moved to a beach outside Fort Bragg, some 5 1/2 hours to the North. She said yes. And we agreed that when the time was right and our wedding closer, we would see about shooting our engagement photos at the aquarium.
David was kind enough to speak with me twice more for two different articles on the impact of the COVID shutdowns, one that appeared in April 2020, the other late in the year. I have spoken with a large number of people whose operations were negatively impacted by the COVID shutdowns, but the aquarium’s story was unique, and it stretched far beyond what the mainstream media was telling.
Monterey Bay Aquarium needed money to feed its animals. Without an open box office and ticket sales, that revenue which supported operations just wasn’t coming in. While this heavily reported aspect of the aquarium closure was taking place, management found itself dealing with other, just as important, issues. Ineligible for the initial round of federal paycheck protection due the size of its workforce, management diligently strived to maintain regular engagement with its paid staff and volunteers, all via streaming video.
As it became clear that the Monterey Bay Aquarium would remain the only zoo or aquarium in California not permitted to open due to the conditions in its county, it also became clearer that it could not forsake its mission to promote ocean conservation. Education went online and virtual and expanded in ways nobody had predicted.
Then there were the fires in the hills above Monterey. The aquarium’s management did what it could to assist employees, volunteers, and members of the community impacted by the flames. As the largest generator of tourism dollars in Monterey county, the aquarium has placed itself within a leadership role in the community. This too could not be overlooked during the closure. The aquarium began working with local partners and nonprofits to assist the migrant farm worker community which had been impacted heavily by the spread of COVID-19.
Throughout this all, whenever I spoke with him, David always kept a cheerful disposition – the kind that says “things are bad right now, but they could be much, much worse.” David and the other members of the aquarium’s leadership team had no doubt they would reopen. It was just a matter of when. During that interim, they did what they could to keep the aquarium alive – in person, online, and in the community – both with the public and with the staff and volunteers who could not physically visit the aquarium.
Biologically, a person is a series of systems working together – skeletal, pulmonary, cardiac, digestive, nervous. One philosopher referred to a person as the culmination of our senses. In a way, the Monterey Bay Aquarium is like a person. There are the buildings, there are the animals, and there are the staff – all resulting in a single complex, yet efficient entity.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium reopens to members on May 1 and to the general public on May 15 – 429 days after it closed.
Instinct tells me to congratulate David, but I know, and he made this very clear, that he’s one of many that worked hard for this moment. Instinct also tells me to welcome back the aquarium, but in truth, it never left.
When the time is right, I want to return to the aquarium to have our engagement photos done. But I don’t want to just have the photos taken with the animals in frame. I also want to be photographed with the staff, the ones that endured so much and persevered, because they are the heartbeat that keeps the aquarium alive.