Save the Bay Gears Up for New Aquarium in Newport

Aquatic wonders of our region will soon be on display in a bigger and better space


Aquarist Adam Kovarsky’s colleagues at Save the Bay often quote him characterizing aquariums as a perfect blend of art and science. Topher Hamblett, Save The Bay director of advocacy and interim executive director, would add that a whole lot of community participation and input also has to be part of the mix.

Hamblett speaks from experience – Save The Bay is currently undergoing a massive project as it moves from its existing Exploration Center & Aquarium at Easton’s Beach to a new facility in downtown Newport. “Our current location is beautiful,” says Hamblett, “but it’s vulnerable.” The move was instigated, in part, by damage caused by Hurricane Sandy. “The Exploration Center was under three feet of water and one foot of sand, and the risk of that kind of damage is only going to increase over time due to climate change.” 

The Hamilton Family Aquarium, slated to open in early 2024, will be located on America’s Cup Avenue on the first floor of the Gateway Transportation & Visitors Center. The new space is 5,000 square feet bigger than the current location, an exciting prospect for Hamblett and his team.

Along with the return of favorite experiences, such as the kid zone and the sand shark touch tank, the new facility means more exhibits, including the Bay of the Future, which explores climate change; the Big Fish of the Bay tank highlighting native striped bass and flounder; and the Bay at Night, giving visitors a peek at bottom-dwelling creatures. Observing the aquarium activity from above will be a locally built 14-foot model of a basking shark, one of 50 species of shark that swims in New England waters.

There will also be a community room, space dedicated to rotating exhibits from other organizations, and perhaps most exciting, three touch tanks with native creatures that will cycle from the bay to the tanks and back to their natural environment, which Hamblett describes as the most ethical and humane way to house animals. “Behind the touch tanks are murals by local artist Amy Bartlett Wright,” Hamblett says of the Portsmouth-based painter. “The murals depict the preferred habitats of the creatures in the touch tank, so it will all feel very immersive.”

The touch tanks and aquariums will be staffed by docents prepared to answer questions from visitors. “Unlike other aquariums that are designed just for observation, ours is staffed by very knowledgeable educators excited to share information,” Hamblett says. Curious patrons will even have chances to peek behind the scenes in the operation rooms. “You’ll be able to see the filters, the pipes, and the holding tanks.”

It takes a boat-load of planning to retrofit a building for use as an aquarium, which requires a lot of electricity and, of course, water. “The building also needed a strong floor to support the thousands of gallons of water in the tanks,” Hamblett says. “We had to take up the old floor and lay steel beams to support the weight!”

The infrastructure is now complete and ready for the fun part: preparing for animals and visitors. “Each week I go down there and see something new,” Hamblett says. “It’s really coming together, and the whole organization is jazzed about it.”

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