The Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration is reaching into the Louisiana bayou, the Pacific kelp forests, and the shipwrecks discovered by undersea explorer Robert Ballard in an attempt to raise its national profile.
The aquarium also has added several prominent leaders in business, science and education to its board of directors, to improve fund-raising and develop nationally known programs.
"We are working hard to build a jewel that will be both meaningful and an asset to the region and to the country," said Gerard Burrow, chief executive of the institution.
Before and after the transformation, the attraction will still remain a place that hordes of schoolchildren and families on summer vacations can enjoy.
An exhibit that opened Tuesday, "Swamp Things," includes a free-form aquarium full of baby alligators, turtles and other creatures of the bayou. The croaking of frogs and the chirping of crickets fill the exhibit hall.
Later this month, an interactive theater called the Immersion Institute opens, and other programs are in the works to appeal to older visitors.
The theater provides live linkups with remote cameras in the nation's marine sanctuaries. Tour guides take visitors through places such as the Monterey Bay kelp forest to view life underwater as it happens.
Each visitor can use a console to learn more about the area being explored.
Ballard, who heads the Institute for Exploration, said he helped raise $1 million to build the Immersion Institute. More sanctuaries will go on line over the next few years, and Ballard said he would like this system to be linked up with his explorations someday.
"This empowers people to do their own thing," Ballard said. "The aquarium is becoming a window to reality."
The aquarium hopes to sell the interactive system and other exhibit ideas to other museums, a change that will bring in revenue and increase the aquarium's national profile, said spokeswoman Lisa Jaccoma.
Later this year, the aquarium plans new displays from some of Ballard's adventures finding shipwrecks, including his search for PT-109, the boat that President Kennedy captained in the South Pacific during World War II.
The archaeological exhibits, besides increasing scholarship about shipwrecks, also attracts an older generation of visitor to the aquarium, Ballard said.
"It's a concerted effort to get visitors to start with the aquarium and graduate to the science center," he said.
Behind the scenes, the aquarium has added several high-powered people to its board of trustees, including David Chamberlain, chief executive of Stride Rite, and Terry Garcia, an executive with National Geographic.
The newly elected president of the board is George Milne, an executive vice president at Pfizer's research headquarters in Groton.
New staff appointments, including people in development and education, will be announced in a few weeks.
Some new board members are knowledgeable about fund-raising, which is critical as the aquarium seeks to increase its endowment and build new programs.
"There is only so much money you can get at the gate," said Jaccoma said.
Neal Overstrom, president of the aquarium, said the transformation started in 1999, when new exhibit space opened. Since then, the aquarium brought in sea lions, beluga whales, an exhibit on Ballard's Black Sea expedition and a frogs exhibit, which has been extended as part of the "Swamp Things" display.
"It's a changing world. People want to see things that are new and different all the time," Overstrom said.