Plunge into the Long Island Sound’s aquatic culture

For decades, the Bruce Museum Seaside Center in Old Greenwich and The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk have offered residents of Fairfield County and beyond entrée into the ecosystems of the Long Island Sound.

That role continues as both organizations plan to expand and enrich their programming for their spring and summer seasons.

“To have animals come up out of the water right within sight of New York is very surprising to a lot of our guests and eye-opening,” says Dave Sigworth, publicist with The Maritime Aquarium. “A lot of people think there is nothing but empty beer bottles down there, but there is actually a lot of marine life in the sound.”

A cross section of the sea life has been on display at the aquarium since 1988, including such main attractions as sand tiger sharks, sea turtles, seadragons (relatives of the seahorse), harbor seals and even landlubbing meerkats.

However, this year the aquarium is expanding its programming to take full advantage of its new research vessel, Spirit of the Sound, a $2.7 million, 65-foot catamaran. Christened in 2015, the vessel is bigger, quieter and greener than the aquarium’s former, 34-year-old trawler. It is powered by a hybrid electric propulsion system, cutting fuel consumption by an estimated 75 percent and features a climate-controlled indoor classroom and an outdoor research space with a capacity of 65 — more than twice that of the former, 40-foot boat.

The vessel, both in its current and past form, has been used largely for educational voyages on the sound, with students learning about its denizens and the sediment they pull from the watery deep. This year the aquarium is expanding beyond the vessel’s educational mission to include tours of the waterfront’s historical lighthouses as well as offering adult and family sunset tours to capture the sound’s aesthetic beauty.

For landlubbers who want to experience the aquatic life of the sound but don’t have the sea legs for an offshore excursion, there is the Bruce Museum Seaside Center at Greenwich Point Park in Old Greenwich. While the aquarium offers hands-on exhibits, the Seaside Center helps guests get knee-deep in the sound with a variety of interactive experiences on the shoreline, including seining, in which visitors can capture examples of aquatic life in large vertical nets.

“Seining is one of our most popular programs,” says Cynthia Ehlinger, manager of the Seaside Center. “Guests come into the Seaside Center and say, ‘Where did these snails come from?’ and very often they are quite surprised to learn they all came from literally feet away down at the water’s edge.”

The center’s year-round touch tank features common species of local shellfish, oysters, clams, mussels and lots of crabs — green crabs, rock crabs and, unfortunately, Ehlinger says, more and more Asian shore crabs, an invasive species that has become common in the area.

The center also presents lesser known native species with peculiar adaptations like the spine-covered inflating northern puffer fish and the winged, though flightless, sea robin.

“People don’t realize that they are surrounded by such a diverse population of animals,” she says. “There is a wonderful world of nature right around them, and we are happy to be able to point out what’s there.”

The Maritime Aquarium at Norwalk is open year-round with Spirit of the Sound cruises operating through the spring and summer. The Bruce Museum Seaside Center is open on a limited basis in the colder months, running the bulk of its programs from June 26 to Sept. 5. For more, visit maritimeaquarium.org and brucemuseum.org.

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