The Audubon Aquarium reopens Thursday, June 8, after an eight-month renovation, with a new look and feel that incorporates the Audubon Insectarium, adds a butterfly garden and shines a renewed spotlight on the animals and plants of Louisiana’s fragile coast.
Although the aquarium has added attractions over the years, the $41 million renovation is its first major renovation since opening in 1990.
Major changes and additions include the completely redesigned insectarium, a butterfly garden, a walk-through exhibit of wading birds that includes two sloths and a large tortoise, and a reconfigured Gulf of Mexico tank that can be viewed from above as well as the sides.
A fresh perspective
The aquarium used the downtime during the coronavirus pandemic to redesign the entire exhibit, update the educational messages and bring a fresh perspective to one of the top aquariums in the country, said Ron Forman, president and CEO of the Audubon Nature Institute.
“We’re teaching young people to love the environment,” Forman said. “Bugs and fish and reptiles and mammals are all an important part of the Earth that we need to protect for the next generation.”
Forman said the original Audubon aquarium was a tremendous success, with more than 40 million people visiting the facility since it opened its doors 33 years ago.
“We’re always rated in the top five aquariums in the country because we work very hard at having a world-class facility right here on the banks of the Mississippi River,” Forman said. “This has been the No. 1 family attraction in Louisiana for more than 30 years, and it just received a major upgrade.”
An atrium welcome
Visitors will enter the aquarium through a lush air-conditioned glass atrium, with walls carpeted with live plants watered by a hidden hydroponics system. The ticket counter is located in the atrium, so there’s no more waiting in the heat to buy tickets. They can also be purchased online.
The first insectarium closed in 2020 because of pandemic restrictions after a 14-year run in the Customs House on Canal Street, and this was an opportunity to merge the bug zoo with the aquarium. The staff used this time to rebuild the exhibit from the ground up and fine-tune their message of why bugs are so important to the Earth.
Zachary Lemann, curator of animal collections at the insectarium and "bug chef," said his team took advantage of the renovation to start from scratch and reevaluate everything about the display.
“We hope that we generate positive enthusiasm and wonder for the natural world that people take with them,” Lemann said. “If we do our job, people think about and care about and act on behalf of the natural world in a way they wouldn’t have before they visited us.”
The exhibit includes numerous exotic and interesting insects from around the world, such as the Hercules beetle from the tropics that sports an intimidating horn and the giant jumping stick grasshoppers that look exactly like tree limbs. Part of the exhibit focuses on the myriad bugs that live in our backyards.
“We want you to appreciate bugs even if you live in a concrete jungle,” said Lemann.
For the more adventurous, the Bug Café is serving up old-school favorites in a modern cafe setting that include Red Beans and Yikes, a dish where waxworms replace rice, and the ever-popular Crispy Cajun Crickets.
The walk-through butterfly garden has a path that takes visitors through a jungle of flowering plants. It's stocked with several hundred butterflies that seem to be fluttering everywhere. The exhibit has a panoramic view of the Mississippi River.
Forman said there is something almost magical about the way people connect with the butterfly garden.
“I like to watch the way people react, especially children, when a butterfly lands on their head or shoulders as they walk through the garden,” Forman said. “You can see the joy on their faces.”
The revamped Aquarium exhibit starts in a bayou setting that puts a renewed focus on Louisiana’s unique ecology and fragile coast. Visitors are greeted by "Tchompitoulas," the famed white alligator, in his updated habitat, and then wind through a simulated swamp populated with baby alligators, crabs, crawfish, a speckled king snake and other bayou residents.
More room for jellyfish
Kristine Grzenda, curator of fish at the aquarium, said she welcomed the opportunity to update the exhibit, and while many favorites such as the penguins and the "touch tank" full of baby sharks and stingrays will remain, there are numerous additions, including a larger new jellyfish tank.
“So much has happened with conservation and the wetlands since we first opened that we needed to reflect those changes in our displays,” said Grzenda. “We want people to see the residents of our bayou as they live in the wild and not just think of them as edibles you’ll find on your plate.”
The humongous 450,000-gallon Gulf of Mexico exhibit can now be viewed from the top, adding a whole new perspective on the sharks, rays, redfish and 50-year-old sea turtle that call it home. The Mayan exhibit featuring the walk-through tunnel is also back, and it’s stocked with a wider variety of tropical fish and seahorses.
The Amazon rainforest exhibit received a major overhaul with new landscaping that required hundreds of new plants and the addition of plenty of free flying birds that provide the soundtrack for the jungle.
“The rainforest is not just what you see; it’s what you hear, too,” Grzenda said. “If you like exotic plants and tropical birds, we have some real nice surprises waiting for you.”
'Protect the environment'
Forman said revenue generated by the aquarium, along with countless private and corporate donations, helps finance Audubon’s extensive conservation networks.
“Our mission is to protect the environment. Everything we do starts with education and helping families be part of the solution,” Forman said. “Breeding endangered animals, wetland restoration, maintaining biodiversity in the marsh, they are all part of our programs and the zoo and aquarium give us revenue to do world-class conservation.”
For tickets and more information visit audubonnatureinstitute.org.
AUDUBON AQUARIUM AND INSECTARIUM
WHERE: 1 Canal St., New Orleans
TICKETS: One attraction: $30 adult/$25 youth
Both attractions: $50 adult/$45 youth
Early admission for members is Fridays and Saturdays, June 9 to July 1, from 8:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.