ROTTERDAM — Even cartilaginous fish got lonely during the COVID-19 shutdown.
The stingrays in the touch tank at Via Aquarium have grown so conditioned to visitors hand-feeding them that they were nose-bumping the staff toward the end of the 105-day closure period the state imposed on the facility.
The aquarium and other Phase 4 operations in the Capital Region were allowed to resume operation Wednesday. It’s back open with extensive safeguards against disease transmission and two 30-minute closures per day to allow for a complete antiseptic wipe-down.
Some of the marine life on exhibit may have welcomed the reopening.
“Our koi fish in particular are used to guests putting their hands in the tank and feeding them,” manager Tom Lavin said Thursday.
The rays also are used to being petted and fed, he added, and during the shutdown they started bumping the probe whenever a staff member went to test the pH of the water in their tank.
It was like a litter of amphibious puppies, he said. “Our animals definitely missed a lot of the interaction.”
There were no guests on site and fewer employees, as much of the staff at the aquarium was furloughed. The biologists were deemed essential and stayed on duty.
But out of the public eye, life went on for the marine creatures.
The continually breeding Lake Malawi cichlid fish produced colorful new generations.
“During the quarantine our seahorses had three different clutches of babies,” Lavin added.
The short staff tried to keep the aquarium in the public’s eye and maintain the connection with members, by broadcasting feedings and mermaid story times on Facebook Live.
Fans returned the attention. One family donated rats for the albino boa constrictor. Another donated vegetables for the vegetarian fish.
Behind the scenes, the staff held Zoom meetings with other aquariums to share ideas on getting through the crisis and getting back to normal afterward.
Aquariums and similar facilities were rated among the least essential of businesses closed down to thwart the spread of COVID-19, so they were among the last allowed to reopen in New York.
“Right now we’re just trying to focus on people back in there, keeping them as safe as possible,” Lavin said.
An important part of Via Aquarium’s business model is group visits, and those are limited these days — just a few day camp groups are booked for this summer.
Birthday parties and other special events also are curtailed.
“Right now we're just kind of focusing on the individuals,” Lavin said.
The aquarium got one lucky break: Its group entrance faces out onto the parking lot. If all it had was the entrance inside the mall, it probably couldn’t have reopened, as interior spaces of malls larger than 100,000 square feet remain closed by state order.
With a little modification, the entrance for groups is now the entrance for everyone.
Some of the more interactive displays were removed, too, so as to limit contact between guests.
But the same basic model — inform, educate, entertain — remains in place, with the same creatures on display.
“We knew things had to be as close to normal as possible,” Lavin said.
TALE OF THE TAPE
NAME: VIA Aquarium
ADDRESS: 93 W. Campbell Road, Rotterdam
EXHIBITS: 37, designed by theme
CENSUS: About 3,000
LARGEST CREATURE: Albino boa, 6.5 feet
LARGEST FISH: Nurse shark, 6 feet
SMALLEST CREATURE: Baby seahorse, as big as a dime, too fragile to display
SMALLEST CREATURE ON DISPLAY: Poison dart frogs, as big as a quarter
LOCAL RESIDENTS: Bass, bluegills, pumpkinseed, sunfish and other fish native to the Capital Region
DEEPEST DWELLER: In the wild, the Japanese spider crab spends much of its life at depths of 1,000 feet or more.