Established in Woods Hole in 1885, the WHSA is the country’s oldest marine aquarium. It is owned by the federal government and operated by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service, in partnership with the Marine Biological Laboratory. The aquarium features:
- Non-releaseable harbor seals
- Animals of the Northeast and Middle Atlantic waters
- Exhibit cases with bones, skulls, and teeth
- Information about marine animals, marine environments, endangered species, marine science, and resource management issues
- Touch tanks where you may find lobsters, tautogs, quahogs, horseshoe crabs, spider crabs, sea stars (starfish), and hermit crabs
Visitors are allowed behind the scenes, where they can watch the staff feed animals, clean tanks, and work on the life support systems. Approximately 80,000 people visit the aquarium every year, including 10,000 children in school groups.
A Google search reveals that several aquariums claim to be the oldest in the country. None have as good a claim on the title as the Woods Hole Science Aquarium, which arguably started in 1875 when Spencer Baird, the first US Fish Commissioner, established a summer research station in Woods Hole and invited the public in to view the marine animals and learn about the new commission’s research. If that is too flimsy a claim for our birth year, 1885 is an easily certified founding date, for that is the year the fledgling US Fish Commission in Woods Hole opened a state-of-the-art research building that featured a public aquarium with cabinets for displaying preserved specimens of fish, invertebrates, and birds, and large tanks holding live marine specimens.
The Woods Hole Science Aquarium is the oldest public aquarium in the country, dating to 1875 when Fisheries Commissioner Spencer Baird invited the public into his research laboratory to view animals and learn about marine science.
Believing that people are entitled to know about work supported by public funds, Baird established a policy of openness in Woods Hole. In 1885 when the federal government built the first dedicated research building in the village, Baird arranged for the new laboratory to include a public aquarium to display marine animals from local waters.
The aquarium thrived in the 19th century laboratory until 1954 when Hurricane Carol ravaged the village. The badly damaged laboratory/aquarium was torn down in 1958 and replaced by two buildings, one of which has housed the aquarium since 1961.
Now well into its second century, the Woods Hole Science Aquarium continues to carry out the dual missions Baird envisioned: supporting fisheries research and educating the public about marine life and marine science.
In the late 20th century, the aquarium took on a third mission: Conservation. The aquarium staff now rehabilitates and releases cold-stunned turtles and provides a permanent home for stranded seals that cannot be released to the wild.
Click here to learn more about the early years of the Woods Hole community.
Directions, reservations, hours, parking, etc.
For information about marine animals, marine science, and resource management, see the links on our Resources page.