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Seaport and aquarium expect a big summer in Mystic

Mystic — With a major new exhibit planned to open Memorial Day weekend, daily new events and free admission for children under 18 throughout the summer, Mystic Seaport Museum is expecting a big bounce-back from 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic reduced attendance to 43% of normal.

"We're expecting a really busy summer," Seaport President Peter Armstrong said.    

In 2020, the museum was closed in April and May and then reopened Memorial Day weekend with COVID-19 precautions in place. Armstrong said attendance was especially impacted by the decision by tour and school groups to cancel their plans to visit.

He said groups already are calling to make reservations to visit and take boat trips while spring weekends this year already have been busy. In addition, 4,000 people attended the museum's two-day Pirate Days celebration in April.      

"That makes us feel optimistic that groups are coming back again," he said. "People really want to get outside and get in the fresh air and out on the river."

Armstrong said the museum also is ramping up its family activities in anticipation of the increased attendance. A major part of that is an initiative called Mystic Seafest, in which there will be food, bands, activities and other entertainment from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

"Whenever you come here, there will be something going on," he said, in addition to the normal exhibits and demonstrations. 

Opening Memorial Day weekend was the latest major exhibit in the Thompson Building. Titled "A Spectacle in Motion," it revolves around the 1,275-foot-long and 8-foot-tall canvas panorama hand-painted by two New Bedford, Mass., men in 1848. America's longest painting, it is as long as the Empire State Building is tall.

It chronicles a whaling trip that one of men had made around the world and the destinations he visited. During its time, it was presented in theaters where the spools were unrolled with the destinations rolling by, a sort of precursor to the moving pictures that would debut 50 years later.

The panorama is the property of the New Bedford Whaling Museum, where it was unrolled and displayed in its entirety in a former textile mill a few years ago.

There will be a video, exhibits and posters to accompany the panorama, different sections of which will be shown each week to reveal a new destination on the voyage. As the new destinations such as the Azores, Hawaii and Fiji are revealed each week, the museum will roll out new activities, music and food related to that destination. The first weekend will feature the Azores and related Portuguese culture.

The museum will distribute passports to visitors and each time they return to see a new destination, they will get a stamp for that port call. Offers and prizes will be given to those who collect multiple stamps and someone who collects all 15 will receive a special prize, according to the museum. 

The museum, with $1.3 million in reimbursement from the state to promote tourism, will offer free admission all summer to any child 18 and under and one adult per family. That initiative also is expected to boost attendance.

Seaport spokesman Dan McFadden said the museum hopes the offer also will help boost the economic diversity of those visiting the museum by removing the barrier of the cost of admission.

"We're looking forward to hosting people who have not been here before," he said.

Armstrong said the hope is they will tell people they know about their visit.

Belugas at the aquarium

At Mystic Aquarium, the buzz is about the belugas — specifically the five belugas the aquarium imported last month from Marineland of Canada in Ontario. Flown to Groton by cargo plane and then trucked to the aquarium, they arrived May 14-15.

“They’re doing well,” Daniel Pesquera, director of media relations for Boston-based Regan Communications Group, said last week.

For now, the new arrivals remain separated from the three belugas that already called the aquarium home and which regularly cavort in the aquarium’s Arctic Coast habitat, a 750,000-gallon pool where they can be viewed underwater. The new whales will be visible from an upper walkway.

“It’s a question of how long they’ll take to adjust,” Pesquera said of the imported belugas. “It might be days or a week. But, definitely, at some point this summer, all eight belugas will be together.”

The newly arrived belugas were brought to Mystic for research purposes and will not be trained to provide entertainment.

The aquarium, which closed when the coronavirus pandemic broke out, reopened outdoor exhibits in May 2020 and reopened indoor exhibits at half capacity about a month later. It returned to 100% capacity this spring.

In addition to the belugas, the aquarium is calling attention to its shark exhibit, which was not always accessible amid the pandemic restrictions. Now fully open, it provides visitors the opportunity to touch such nonthreatening species as dogfish shark, white-spotted bamboo shark and the blue-spotted ray.

The aquarium’s Undersea Explorer exhibit features virtual reality experiences in which visitors wear goggles and enter one of four “pods” that simulate swimming with humpback whales, encounters with hammerhead sharks and other species as well as a journey to a mythical undersea world.

Another interactive exhibit in the aquarium’s main gallery, "Discover Long Island Sound," highlights the local estuary through digital, interactive displays, a hands-on watershed model that includes a 12-foot-long water table and a touch experience with lobsters and other invertebrates.

Presentations involving California sea lions have resumed, the “Jurassic Giants” dinosaur exhibit has been renovated and made more interactive and a “Paint With a Sea Lion” activity is now in place.

“It’s worth noting, too, that our Animal Rescue Program is up and running after being shut down,” Pesquera said. “We reopened in November and it's been ramping up. We’re getting a lot of hotline calls and we’ve already rescued a seal and a few turtles.”


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