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'Bankrolling Survival Today, Using The Future,' Waik?k? Aquarium Faces Uncertain Future

The Waikīkī Aquarium was on the brink of financial ruin due to the pandemic. But support from donors, the University of Hawaiʻi, and state legislature helped see them through. Now the aquarium is looking toward reopening and recovery.
Casey Harlow / HPR
The Waikīkī Aquarium was on the brink of financial ruin due to the pandemic. But support from donors, the University of Hawaiʻi, and state legislature helped see them through. Now the aquarium is looking toward reopening and recovery.

The COVID-19 pandemic is forcing many local businesses and organizations to the financial brink. One of them is the Waik?k? Aquarium – a local institution hanging on by a thread.

The Waik?k? Aquarium first opened its doors in March 1904. At 116 years old, it is the second-oldest public aquarium in the U.S. It has welcomed generations of residents and visitors to learn about Hawai?i's marine life and ecosystem.

Jerome Bautista remembers the first time he visited the aquarium in 2008. He says the Waik?k? Aquarium is not like other aquariums he's visited.

"It's different," he said. "The vibe that you get at the aquarium – it's like saying coming to Hawai?i, you sense that aloha spirit. It's hard to explain."

That visit made such an impression on Bautista, that he's volunteered there for more than a decade – talking story to visitors and residents about the aquarium's history and exhibits. 

"Here in Hawai?i, we're pretty much connected to nature," he said. "And for the kids to come, and just start talking about the ocean and animals that's inside, hopefully you start to plant that seed that, 'This is something I want to preserve and protect.'"

The Waik?k? Aquarium is part of the University of Hawai?i system, but only receives state funding for its full-time employees. Rossiter says the aquarium is considered a business by UH, because it is self-sufficient and can occasionally turn a profit.

"Our sources of revenue are gate receipts, money from the gift shop, and facility rentals of the property after hours," said Andrew Rossiter, executive director of the Waik?k? Aquarium.

Rossiter says all of those revenue streams dried up when the city issued its first "stay-at-home, work-from-home" order in March due to the coronavirus pandemic. Like many other organizations, the lockdown took a major financial toll on the aquarium.

But unlike other businesses, the aquarium says it can't make any cost-saving measures and was not eligible for federal CARES Act relief.

"We still had to keep everything running because all the animals have to be taken care of," Rossiter said. "The other side of the equation was, because we're part of the state, we weren't able to furlough or lay people off."

That has put the organization in a deep budget hole.

Rossiter says it has already burned through its reserves and is withdrawing from a special UH Foundation fund meant for future exhibits – which, according to Rossiter, had 16 years worth of savings.

"We're bankrolling survival today, using the future of the aquarium."

The aquarium was able to reopen for a brief period when the city's restrictions eased in June. Rossiter says local families remained hesitant to come to the aquarium, and little revenue was generated during that time.

Today, the aquarium is closed to the public, in accordance with the city's second lockdown order.

Lee Higa-Okamoto, executive director of the Friends of the Waik?k? Aquarium, says the nonprofit has raised funds to help the aquarium make ends meet in the short-term. But longer term, the aquarium can't rely on UH for help.

"It's difficult for UH to now find funding to help the aquarium, because it wasn't really part of their plan – in terms of budgeting," she said.

To survive the next 10 months, Rossiter says the aquarium needs $880,000 – and that won't be easy to come by due to the economic impacts caused by the pandemic.

Higa-Okamoto says losing the aquarium would not only mean one less anchor of Waik?k?'s history, but also the loss of another educational resource.

"One of its main missions is marine education. Providing that information on conservation and about marine organisms, the environment, to not only our visitors but our kama??ina.

"What's unfortunate is that impact to educate everyone about Hawai?i's unique ecosystem and marine environment is in jeopardy."

Like many residents, Higa-Okamoto went to the aquarium as a child. And like many local parents, she would take her seven-year-old son to the aquarium.

"It's kind of like a tradition of taking your kid to the aquarium," she said. "It never gets old for us to go to the aquarium. It's a relatively small aquarium, however, there's so much to see. And every time it's a different experience."

The aquarium, and those who love it, hope it will see its 117th year.

Casey Harlow was an HPR reporter and occasionally filled in as local host of Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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