Stephen Coan on Science, Whales and Tourism at the Mystic Aquarium


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CT Examiner’s Cate Hewitt and Gregory Stroud arrived at Mystic Aquarium on Monday afternoon to interview Stephen Coan, the long-time head of what has become Connecticut’s largest tourist attraction. 

The aquarium is a genuine marine biology research institution — with a strong faculty connection to UConn and a significant staff of in-residence and affiliated scientists — that also draws crowds and ticket sales with its crowd-pleasing focus on marine mammals including beluga whales, penguins and sea lions.

At a time when climate change and melting glaciers are a concern for much of the public, Mystic Aquarium’s Arctic Coast habitat, with a 750,000 gallon outdoor enclosure for beluga whales — the largest of its kind in North America — aims to create a popular connection to science and the marine environment.

And the parking lots were packed. Families of all sorts — black, white, brown — lined up to enter the aquarium.

But with increasing public attention to animal welfare — and appreciation for the extraordinary intelligence and emotional lives of some species — the aquarium has tried to walk a careful line between entertainment and scientific purpose.  

In early August, that conversation came to a head when one of five beluga whales transferred to the aquarium died from what scientists say were gastric ulcers. The whales were brought to the aquarium from Marineland Canada, where they were born. The ailing whale was believed to be recovering from the condition prior to the move.

Mystic Aquarium President and CEO Stephen Coan

We met up with Coan, who came to the aquarium initially in 2002 as part of an effort to provide opportunities for disadvantaged children to learn about science and the broader world, to better understand how Mystic Aquarium is managing to balance all of these missions and still stay afloat.

The following interview has been condensed and edited for clarity

Can you take us back to the beginnings of the aquarium in 1973. How did it start and why? 

The aquarium began as a demonstration project for artificial saltwater and it was called “Instant Ocean.” The founding president was Bill Kelly and we had a very strong connection to the Smith family of Cleveland, Ohio. Calvin Smith was the inventor of Instant Ocean. They launched Mystic Aquarium as the first first major aquarium that made its own salt water instead of pumping it in. Artificial salt water has many medical and industrial uses, so this was a huge breakthrough. The birth of Mystic Aquarium was a way to showcase the importance of this new product and new concept.

The aquarium established itself as a marine mammal institution — that is a unique characteristic of Mystic Aquarium — and from the beginning, it had a very clear focus on research. 

Almost all aquariums today have some connection to research, but they are not necessarily research institutions. Mystic Aquarium established itself as a research institution —  our purpose was clearly defined as advancing knowledge about marine life and the oceans.

Is there a scientific rationale for keeping and studying marine mammals in captivity rather than in their natural environment? 

You can’t study belugas or other whales in the wild in any substantive way. The technology doesn’t exist and it is simply not practical to do so. The studies of whales in the wild are limited to aerial studies and some limited visual studies. There are very few studies, if any, of immunology or anything that involves taking blood samples or looking at the physical condition of the animals, particularly for larger cetaceans. There is a lot of work done on smaller animals — seals and sea lions can be tagged easily. 

We don’t even know the sex or the actual number of beluga whales in the wild because the technology doesn’t exist to really track that and it’s extraordinarily invasive to go and chase whales in the wild. At this point it’s nearly impossible to succeed in that kind of endeavor. 

The reason from a research and science perspective for having any animals here is we can take blood samples — the animals are trained to be able to take blood samples, to be able to participate in studies. 

One of the very important aspects of our research is developing photogrammetry technology in particular — it will allow us to better track populations of wild belugas and wild cetaceans generally, but our focus is on the beluga whales. We’re looking at camera systems in collaboration with National Geographic that can be attached to larger cetaceans so that we know more about their diving physiology and the behaviors of the whales under the water. 

The other reason is to have a control population that we can work with to understand behaviors, stress responses to immune systems, etc. and then compare that with wild populations when we’re able to do that.

Mystic Aquarium is also the most popular tourist attraction in Connecticut. On the plus side, the aquarium draws 800,000 each year, but 80 percent of your revenue comes from admissions. How do you balance the double-edged sword of needing to attract the public for revenue and a research mission?

This aquarium has certainly evolved over time, as have most aquariums and zoos, from entertainment venues to a much more balanced view. 

The presence of marine mammals here and also the research that we do is far from being a profit motive. This is one of the most expensive institutions to run in the country. If you compare us against the Florida aquarium or the New England Aquarium, our expenses are considerably higher on a per capita basis because of the work that we do with marine mammals and the research that we invest in. Some people say, “Well, you know, the whales are here for entertainment.” It makes absolutely no sense to say that.

And it’s true that 80 percent of our revenue comes from gate attendance, but 40 percent of our attendance is free, which is an interesting statistic. 

Have our values about researching and keeping marine mammals in captivity changed since the 1970s when the aquarium began? 

I think there’s always tension between the tourism nature of these institutions and their scientific and policy purpose, and that tension creates confusion, in many respects, about the nature and purpose of what we are, who we are, what we do. 

Most aquariums were established in the United States as ways to drive development of waterfront areas. The Boston New England Aquarium in Boston, the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the Tennessee Aquarium, Georgia Aquarium — these were all established really as economic drivers. 

Mystic Aquarium is a huge economic driver for the state. It’s a huge part of the tourism industry and it’s an important factor that we see as a significant responsibility to the state and the region. 

But our core business is a scientific one. And I think one of the cool things, and what is cool about aquariums in particular, is we’re connecting people with science, with living beings, and with research every day. The STEM movement has evolved over time hoping and wanting to do exactly what we do, which is to connect people and kids to real science in real time. 

One of the big conversations up at the Capitol in Hartford is over juvenile crime. I was kind of surprised to see the aquarium has its own programs for at-risk youth.

My background is actually in working with at-risk youth and my academic background is in social services. 

We’ve had a long-standing focus on working with at-risk youth across the country. We serve about 150 Boys and Girls Clubs and after school programs throughout the country, with a STEM mentoring program that’s sponsored by the US Department of Justice. 

We have other programs throughout Connecticut and Rhode Island communities, usually connecting with community centers, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCAs and other youth serving agencies. 

These programs provide free access to the aquarium and are heavily activity-based. They’re aimed at bringing adults into the lives of kids, and providing materials that allow a discussion to happen. Simple mentoring programs often fall apart because kids get bored and adults don’t know what to say. Our programs are designed to facilitate a discussion around STEM. 

But again, 40% of our attendance is coming for free. That’s a commitment that this institution has made over the years and it’s kind of another example of the unique nature of Mystic Aquarium and what we do.

As a guy with a non-STEM background in a STEM institution, you’re kind of a fish out of water. How do you relate to the marine biologists at the aquarium? 

I was really surprised by the passion of the people here when I came, and today I’m just really inspired by it, particularly post COVID. The depth of concern for a paddlefish or for a crab, or lobster, is equal to that of a beluga whale. We spend a lot of time talking about beluga whales, or large mammals and we tend to forget half our team is involved with smaller animals and they care just as much about those invertebrates that they’ve been studying for 20 years. 

The animals are really important, they’re core to what we do, but if humans aren’t paying attention to what we’re doing, and we’re not really reaching out to kids, then it’s really not serving the mission of the organization to be a public engagement institution. The focus that I’ve brought to the equation is increased emphasis on human human engagement, while also in particular connecting kids to the science. 

Give us the big picture for Mystic Aquarium in the coming 20 or 30 years. What changes do you see for the future?  

For Mystic Aquarium the future is conservation engagement, meaning broad public participation in conservation projects, citizen science, and family group projects. 

It’s important to get beyond the awareness of “Wow, hey, the world’s oceans are in trouble.” It’s really key to get people to engage in making a difference and not to leave them helpless or hopeless. The future of this aquarium and other aquariums is to make that connection much more explicit, much more direct, and to be able to measure it, so that when people come here, they’re leaving with a much greater sense of awareness about the ocean environment and how they might take steps to connect with it and improve it. 

A lot of people who come to aquariums, even this aquarium, have actually never had a direct connection with the ocean — I know that’s a startling thing to say — but it’s particularly true for at-risk kids and for at-risk families. Many, many kids who we see have never gotten out of their own neighborhood, so this is a whole new experience, a whole new sense of awareness for them about marine life and about the ocean itself.

We’re doing research to engage the public in fundamentally changing and improving the life of animals in the ocean and of the ocean environment — we’re not a pure research institution, we’re not doing research for research’s sake, and that’s a very big distinction. We’re more like a teaching college than a research university. Fifty percent of our researchers’ time is spent in some form of public engagement. 

Going forward, the aquarium will take a much more deliberate role in public policy. We’ve already had a significant role in public policy, especially in protecting beluga whales in Bristol Bay, Alaska. That’s an example of active research impacting public policy. We also had an impact on creating the Marine National Sanctuary in New England and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, which is the first one in the Atlantic Ocean. That was research driven — the science that we did showed policymakers the uniqueness of that environment, the reefs and the massive biodiversity that exist in that area.

We’ve taken a very clear position on the ocean wind energy projects. The research that we do shows that the project will have minimal effect on fisheries — it’ll have some effect, but a minimal effect. That’s the kind of research and science that can inform policy. 

The broader issue, which people forget, is that carbon emissions are killing marine mammals at an astounding rate — the warming of the water temperature and the whole environment is having a significant impact on the health of marine mammals and whales, and particularly the gray whales. The whole ecosystem is changing so quickly, so rapidly that animals can’t adapt fast enough.

How do you talk to children about something like climate change without overwhelming them. How do you give them hope for the future? 

The worst thing that we can do, and it’s done a lot, is to be hopeless about big issues, like climate change — it’s a really scary issue for kids and for the public generally and it does engender a sense of hopelessness when you talk about doomsday scenarios. I think we try to present a hopeful scenario that people can make a difference by their actions and through their actions. 

I believe it’s important to highlight success stories. For example, when I was a kid, roads were littered, I-95 was littered with trash. Today, that’s not so much the case. There’s still a lot of litter but it’s not like the old days where you see people just throw stuff out the window. Another example is smoking, it hasn’t been completely eradicated, but we’ve made huge strides in ending dependency on smoking and the number of people who are smoking. The ozone layer is another one — when I was a kid, the ozone layer was a scary topic and everybody thought we were all going to burn to death, but we’ve seen enormous progress in closing the gap. 

Getting people out and engaged in projects and in contributing to science through citizen science is really an important part of what we’re doing. The growth in our conservation programs has been dramatic. It’s gone from about 10,000 people a year in 2017 to about 75,000 people — even during the pandemic. Part of that is we’ve expanded the number of programs, but the interest is phenomenal and the desire to go out and do something that makes a difference is very real. I think that that’s our future.

We’ve read that Millennials and Generation Z have their own philosophies for donating money. How do you engage future generations to support aquariums? 

I think that Gen Z and Millennials are really concerned about the future of the planet in a way that other generations have not been. It’s important for us to show that we have relevancy for them in that we’re doing things that make a difference. 

That’s not just the conservation ethic, but conservation action becomes really important and so advancing the work that we’re doing in places like Bristol Bay, becomes extremely important to Gen X and to Millenials so they can see some results. 

They’re looking for authenticity — they’re not looking for freeing all of the animals. They’re looking for the connection between the animals and action in the environment. There’s a true search for authenticity and we are, hopefully, an authentic institution and have been for a long time. 

Last September, Gov. Ned Lamont and Mystic Aquarium announced a $31.5 million public-private partnership that included $10 million in private donations, $14.5 million in debt elimination and a $7 million loan from the state. What is the aquarium’s financial picture almost a year later?

What I inherited as president in 2006 was an institution that had expanded greatly. It had several operating divisions, including deep ocean exploration, STEM education, and some great new exhibits. The institution had taken a huge leap forward, but a lot of that had been debt-financed, so we were $34 million in debt. When I took over, most of my focus financially has been spent trying to get us out of debt. 

The assumption at that time was that the attendance would grow to 1.5 million people, but we now know that attendance is not going to increase to that amount. The debt that the aquarium took on at that time was much too high. Where we are today is we have eliminated all of that debt, we have no bank debt. We had $14 million remaining of the $34 million remaining and we were able to reach an agreement with our banks to settle that debt with private donations.

The state came in to provide a loan for operations. Given that we were closed down and didn’t have any revenue, they offered $7 million and we used just over $3 million of that, so we did not use the entire amount.

What people don’t understand is you can never shut this place down. We have our own animals and we always have animals coming in to be rescued and rehabilitated. We laid off non essential staff, but even with our essential staff, it is a huge operation that costs a million dollars a month, plus million plus a month to just keep the animals alive and to deal with essential services and fixed costs.

What new initiatives do you have planned? 

We want to build a new penguin facility and bring in a new species of penguins. That facility would include a better veterinary care facility for those birds and also increased opportunities for public encounters. In 2022, we’re looking to improve the visitor experience at the front entrance and in the courtyard area so there’ll be a whole new plaza built with lots of space for people to sit and gather. In 2021, we’ve done ‘not-so-exciting’ projects — over $2 million in infrastructure work including new HVAC systems, life support systems and roofs. Those have all been then repaired and replaced and are now energy efficient so our energy bill should go down by about 25% annually.

The next phase of that project will be to put solar installed solar panels throughout all the buildings and we will continue to look at ways to reduce energy consumption. It’s a huge step forward that most people won’t see.

The Mystic Aquarium will hold an in-person and online fundraiser to support beluga whale care and research on Thursday, August 19 from 7 to 9 p.m.

All attendees will be able to bid for the right to name three of Mystic’s new belugas during a live auction conducted by Guernsey’s, with absentee and online bidding available through and Invaluable.

Other items to be auctioned include VIP tickets to Derek Jeter’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame, a Porsche Roadster, VIP experiences at Super Bowl LVI and Madison Square Garden, plus a car, boats and other items. Tickets are $150 per person.

Click here for more details.

Editor’s note: The online bidding will be available through Invaluable, not Inclusive, as previously stated.