The “Town Meeting” last week was very productive for me, as I hope it was for you. In today’s posting I would like to answer several questions that were raised during the meeting.
Uniforms for Staff and Volunteers
Immediate steps are being taken to introduce options for headgear including a wide-brimmed uniform hat. Uniform styles (shirts, etc.) will be evaluated to see how we can better accommodate the changing needs of our staff.
Tattoos and Body Piercings
This is clearly a cultural and generational issue that we need to address. Our current policies have tried to balance the perceived expectations of guests and customers with current trends. While it seems like it is a straight forward issue, it is not as clear cut as one might think. I have asked several members of the Management Team to make recommendations on this issue with the intention of being more accommodating of staff – and of new cultural trends – where tattoos and body piercings are commonplace. As I stated at the Town Hall meeting, as an organization Sea Research Foundation must find ways to embrace and attract diversity to our staff and volunteers to better reflect the changing profiles of our guests and customers.
Recycling and Conservation
Recent promptings by staff indicate a need for a more aggressive approach on our campus. As reported, Assistant Director of Facilities Ken Backofen and “The Green Team” will be introducing new customized multi-recycling receptacles and signage in the Fall of 2012. There is no debate on this issue. Sea Research Foundation must lead by example with state-of-the-art recycling and conservation measures. Additionally, as suggested at the meeting, Vice President for Business Development Will Parks has secured agreements with our retail vendors to switch to fully recyclable paper bags and to eliminate use of plastic bags also by Fall of 2012.
The question raised during the Town Meeting regarding the increasing cost of the employee share of health care was discussed at the Management Team Meeting last week. With the Supreme Court’s decision to uphold the Affordable Care Act we will be in a better position to predict next steps for health care coverage in 2013. We anticipate another jump in pricing but we are aggressively investigating options including joining in a health care buying consortium or increasing the employer contribution to Health Savings Accounts so that employees can purchase insurance on the newly mandated and state based “health care exchanges”. As noted during the meeting, the high cost to Sea Research Foundation and JASON Project employees reflects the fact that we are a relatively small cohort and have been unable thus far to expand our pool by collaborating with other organizations in purchasing health care plans. This is due to restrictions by providers. Within our cohort we naturally have individuals who smoke or who have pre-existing conditions which raises the premiums for everyone. I share that not to make anyone feel guilty, but rather to point out how unfair the current system continues to be for small businesses like our own. We will aggressively seek alternatives for 2013, and we continue to encourage all staff to utilize our health programs including Weight Watchers, the Employee Assistance Program which can help with smoking, alcohol or other habits and addictions, and to take time each day to exercise. These efforts reduce health care costs for everyone. Each person in our organization can make a difference for all by staying fit and healthy, and making positive lifestyle choices.
Thank you to everyone who organized and participated in "Seals on the Rocks" last Friday night. Simultaneously, we were hosting the 2nd Annual National Educators Conference at George Washington University for the JASON and Immersion Learning educators.
Special thanks to Dr. Eleanor Smalley and the JASON Team for their efforts in making that a success. Meanwhile, Mary Ellen Mateleska is in Singapore continuing to build educational programs for our collaboration with the Marine Life Park.
I end today with video clips describing our work there:
Best wishes for a wonderful 4th of July. Let's be sure to remember all who are serving our nation as we celebrate independence and the freedom which we cherish as Americans.
Two weeks ago I was privileged to be at the 20th anniversary of the SuAnne Big Crow Boys and Girls Club in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. I went, in large part, to honor the work of President’s Councilor Robbie Callaway, who was one of the first youth advocates in the nation to call attention to the needs of children and youth within Indian Country, USA.
Pine Ridge is located on the Oglala Sioux reservation within and adjacent to the imposing Black Hills of South Dakota. Their Boys and Girls Club was the first such facility established in Indian Country. Today there are 200 Native American Clubs serving nearly 90,000 Native youth in 24 states, representing approximately 90 different American Indian, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian communities. Still not enough to serve the tremendous needs and poverty of Native American children and youth, but certainly a step forward. I flew from South Dakota to Washington, DC where I serve on the Boards of the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation and the U.S. Coastal America Learning Centers. When a fellow Aquarium CEO heard where I had been, he said, “what were you doing in South Dakota, there is no ocean there.”
The fact is, there is a little ocean in many parts of Indian Country, and soon there will be in Pine Ridge as well. Through our JASON Project, Immersion Learning and Nautilus Live programs we have brought the ocean to thousands of kids in the Boys and Girls Club network in Indian Country. The Club in Pine Ridge will soon join several other Boys and Girls Clubs throughout the nation in having an “Exploration Command Center” which will link them to the work of the E/V Nautilus and to our amazing group of scientists and engineers who will mentor the students through live interactive programming.
Here are two pictures from the ceremony at Pine Ridge:
The photo to the right is President's Councilor Robbie Callaway with Leatrice “Chick” Big Crow. Pine Ridge's Boys and Girls Club is named for her daughter, SuAnne Big Crow, who was killed in an automobile accident while driving to a high school basketball event over 20 years ago.
Mr. Callaway gave a very emotional speech about his experiences working with the Club, and how he was ultimately welcomed as a member of the Oglala Sioux tribe.
At Mystic Aquarium we have an outstanding team of experts in water quality. Here is a short video featuring Dawn Holman and Elizabeth Lillie who explain the work of our Water Quality Lab.
Congratulations go to Todd Devlin-Perry who recently earned his Level 1 Life Support System Operator Certification. This took considerable hard work on his part and will greatly benefit the organization. Thank you, Todd.
On June 12th, under the leadership of Trustee John Holstein, we hosted our first Sea Research Foundation Golf Classic at Lake of Isles in Mashantucket. Special thanks to our Executive Director of Development Megan Brown and Director of Special Events Donna Chenette for their working in organizing this event as well as the many members of our staff who assisted. It was a great event and grossed over $50,000 for our comprehensive campaign.
Several members of our staff had the opportunity to play in the tournament with Auctioneer Mike Riccio. Megan Priede, Amanda Wacasey and Gus Stout represented us well. It was Gus’ first time golfing and he did great. Pictured below is our tournament mascot riding with an overdressed non-golfer.
On a very personal note, I would like to thank the many people who have kindly offered prayers and words of encouragement over the past six months. In January, I arrived in Singapore with Trustee Tom Mosey and learned within hours of being there that my wife had been hospitalized. I returned home immediately (it’s a 20 hour trip) and went to Rhode Island Hospital.
Within a few days we learned that Patti had cancer. This is, as many of you know, a devastating conversation to be party to. The past six months have involved radiation and chemotherapy but I am so relieved to tell you that she has been declared cancer free. Again, I thank you for your support and encouragement. Patti looks forward to again being a presence at our events beginning in the Fall.
See you all very soon!
I want to remind you that we have a Town Meeting scheduled for June 26th at 8am on the Main Gallery floor. These meetings are open to the Board and Donors, but are primarily intended for staff and volunteers to come together and discuss common issues.
In the meantime, I want to share with you some of the highlights of the Board of Trustees meeting which took place during the past weekend.
Dr. George M. Milne, Jr., Chairman of the Board, welcomed several new Trustees. They are:
· Jamie O’Connell, Managing Director, The Blackstone Group, New York, New York. Mr. O’Connell headed the debt restructure effort for Sea Research Foundation on a pro bono basis between 2008 and 2010. He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He specializes in corporate financial restructuring and reorganization. He will serve on the Finance Committee of the Board.
· Dr. Daniel Domenech, Executive Director of the American Association of School Administrators, in Alexandria, Virginia. The Association is the primary membership organization for school superintendents and principals in the United States. Dr. Domenech is one of the most prominent school leaders in the nation, having served as Superintendent of the Miami-Dade and Fairfax, Virginia school districts as well as many other prominent assignments. Dr. Domenech will serve on the Education Committee of the Board.
· Tim Kane, President and CEO, Goodway Technologies in Stamford, Connecticut. Goodway Technologies is a global manufacturer of industrial maintenance technologies and equipment. Mr. Kane is a native of Greenwich, Connecticut and is active in numerous marine science and youth oriented philanthropies. Mr. Kane will serve on the Development and Education Committees of the Board.
· Dr. Alfredo Gutierrez of Miami, Florida heads Northbay Equity Partners, a private equity firm focused on Latin America. Dr. Gutierrez was President of JP Morgan Brazil and a senior officer of the World Bank. He has a keen interest in The JASON Project, Immersion Learning and our work with the Miami Dade County Public Schools. Dr. Gutierrez will serve on the Finance and Education Committees of the Board.
We also welcomed a new member of the President’s Council. Dr. Robert Spillane lives in Pawcatuck, is a native of Connecticut, and is a retired school superintendent who led the New Rochelle, Boston and Fairfax County Virginia public school districts. He serves as an education ambassador for the U. S. Department of State and continues to advise school districts throughout the nation on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) issues.
The Board dinner and meeting took place at the Mystic Yachting Center which since January has been operated by our catering company, Ocean Blue Catering. It was an opportunity for the Trustees to see the facility which has significant bookings in place through the end of first quarter 2013 and is already profitable for Sea Research Foundation.
There was much to celebrate during the meeting. Attendance year-to-date is up 25% from the same time last year, and the first quarter of 2012 was the fifth consecutive quarter of attendance and related revenue growth for the organization. The Titanic exhibit has been a smashing success. We are making progress on the final phase of the debt restructure, to refinance current debt with another bank and secure an additional write down of $5 million from our current lender – a clause that was intended to motivate Sea Research Foundation to meet or exceed certain benchmarks on financial performance which we have done.
During the meeting independent auditor JH Kohn reported a clean audit, and complimented the Board on the progress that the organization made during 2011 and the first quarter of 2012. The audit firm also challenged Sea Research Foundation to continue to stabilize revenue lines and correlate expenses accordingly.
The Board meeting featured reports from the various Committees which currently include:
· Finance, Charles Gill, Chair
· Audit, Steve Perrelli, Chair
· Nominating and Governance, Susette Tibus, Chair
· Animal Care and Research, Dr. Gerard Burrow, Chair; Dr. Deborah Kochevar, Vice Chair
· Education (The JASON Project), Jerry Lundquist, Chair
· Institute for Exploration, Peter Drakos, Chair
· Mystic Entertainment Company (Ocean Blue Catering), Dan Verdier, Chair
· Capital Projects and Master Planning, Dan Verdier, Chair
· Maritime Drive Properties, John Holstein, Chair
· Marketing, Steve Perrelli, Chair
· Development, Tom Leiden, Chair
During these reports some key issues were discussed at length. They included:
· Focusing our development, marketing, public relations and sales efforts to grow our overall presence in Fairfield County and Rhode Island;
· Continuing to diversify the Board of Trustees;
· Long-term planning for our marine mammal collection;
· Long-term planning for our focus on ocean exploration and work with the E/V Nautilus
· Human resource needs including compensation of staff and follow-up to the 2010 employee survey of staff. Considerable attention was given to staff professional development.
We heard a presentation from The Ocean Project on research that they are conducting on the impact of aquariums, zoos and museums on public consciousness with regard to ocean issues. A copy of that report can be found here.
Having raised nearly the entire $12 million comprehensive campaign goal set in November 2010, the Board of Trustees voted to increase the quiet phase of the campaign to $18 million. We will determine later in the year when and how we make the campaign public. The incredible support of our staff and management team in the campaign was noted as one of the success points, along with 100% participation from the Board.
Most exciting to the Board was to hear a presentation from Director of Exhibits Jonathan Scoones and Curator of Fish and Invertebrates Don Harrington on exhibit plans for the next several years. This plan, put together by them jointly, represents the work of the Cross-Functional Team on Exhibits established about two years ago. Members of the Committee include: Jon Scoones, Don Harrington, Peter Glankoff, Megan Brown, Tracy Romano, Bruce Cousineau, Jim Meyers, Kelly Milton, Mike Osborn, Will Parks, Keith Sorensen, Mary Beth Sweeney, Allison Tuttle and Andy Wood.
A copy of the plan can be seen here. It is important to note that this is an initial plan that will be vetted and refined many times. Your input and suggestions are most welcome by response to this Blog or via email to me or others on the Cross-Functional Team.
I would like to point out that we currently have three Cross-Functional Teams. They are the Exhibits Team, the Human Resources Team, and the Institute for Exploration Team. The cross-functional approach is intended to bring focus to key operating areas that by nature require multi-departmental input and that have broad impact on all areas of day-to -day operations.
Every Board meeting features extensive interaction, debate and refinement of operations. Sea Research Foundation has much to celebrate. However, the Board emphasized that we need to continue to strengthen our financial position, invest in our staff and raise funds so that we can continue to improve our exhibits and grow our attendance. As I hope you know by now, the organization has established operational goals for 2012, which can be found here.
A couple of updates are in order.
First, thank you to everyone who made April such a great success. With 70,000 visitors over a three week period everyone was challenged. All of our departments and personnel came together to help our guests have the best possible experience and to keep exhibits, programs and hospitality services going smoothly.
Second, I want to acknowledge the tremendous work of those who collaborated on the new United Technologies Ocean Exploration Center. A special thank you to several people who made the project possible: Trustee Charles Gill who secured funding for it; Dr. Robert Ballard whose vision makes it possible; and including Vice President Keith Sorensen who oversaw all phases of the project. Thank you also to Vice President Laurie Bradt, Paul McKee, Jim Meyers, Jeff Glennon, Bruce Cousineau, Tim Robbins, Vice President Will Parks, Executive Vice President Peter Glankoff, and the entire Marketing and Public Relations Team. No doubt I am leaving someone off, and for that I apologize in advance. That is the danger in singling people out – it took many more people to make this project happen and to all I am very grateful.
Congratulations to Gayle Sirpenski who has been nominated for a position on the Ethics Board of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Thank you to Dr. Robert Ballard and Katie Cubina who gave testimony recently at the Rhode Island State House in support of funding for The JASON Project.
Also, congratulations to Dr. Allison Tuttle who spoke at a recent conference in New Orleans marking the 2nd Anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The conference was sponsored by our partner, the North American Marine Environment Protection Association (NAMEPA) under the leadership of Trustees Clay Maitland and Carleen Lyden-Kluss. It was attended by leaders who responded to the incident as well as academics and policymakers including Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA).
Recently I gave a policy address at Fairfield University as part of their public engagement lecture series. An Op-Ed appeared in the Connecticut Post summarizing the talk which you can find here.
The talk itself appeared in the journal, Marine Link and can be found here.
While there is much exciting work to be done, there is time for fun as well. After the Board meeting my family and I went to see the Red Sox at Fenway Park. What a game! After 17 innings the Red Sox lost to the Orioles. Alas, but the season is young and hope springs eternal.
See you soon!
On April 11 we dedicate the new Ocean Exploration Center and open an exciting new exhibit, Titanic: 12,450 Feet Below. This $2 million renovation and construction project is being managed by Vice President for Facilities and Capital Projects, Keith Sorensen who is working with Tim Delaney Productions, EWI Worldwide and Carlin Construction on the project. Here are some images of the project from this week:
§ § § § § § §
On Tuesday, Executive Vice President Peter Glankoff gave a major speech to a legendary Connecticut group known as the "Old Guard". His speech captures the history of our organization and its future quite well and I want to share it with you:
OLD GUARD PRESENTATION: March 27, 2012
Mystic Aquarium to Sea Research: Not Just Another Pretty Fish
Good Morning, Old Guard! It is great to be here, and I am delighted to be invited to this gathering. The story I want to share with you today is about how a very nice local aquarium that you probably know pretty well changed into something quite different from what you might have thought it was.
It's a story about an aquarium, but it could as easily be a story about a company, a culture or even a country.
But first, a little background on my subject today -- the aquarium in question -- Mystic Aquarium.
Let's travel back to the mid-60s, a time when little old Mystic, Connecticut appeared to be really onto something. A few years earlier, in the late 50s, a brand new I-95 Connecticut Turnpike brought access from all directions and distances to shoreline Connecticut. A "living history" maritime museum called Mystic Seaport was inviting visitors to climb aboard old wooden ships which at the time was about as exciting an experience as anyone could imagine. Mystic Seaport began drawing significant numbers of people to Mystic from New York and beyond. In 1967, only days after a 12-page spread in National Geographic Magazine on Mystic Seaport, complete with a detailed map of the museum grounds landed in peoples’ mailboxes, crowds lined the sidewalk waiting to get in. People were observed waiting patiently to be admitted, their National Geographic magazines and maps firmly in hand.
Much has changed since those days of new Interstates, paper magazines and being able to touch history by stepping onto a real whale ship. Think population explosion, Disney, digital media and virtual reality. Our world has really changed.
In 1973, a small group of successful, Cleveland-based scientists and entrepreneurs founded Mystic Aquarium – a single building with fish tanks situated right at the I-95 Exit 90 interchange. The founders had invented a product called Instant Ocean which you could just add to tap water and bingo you had the perfect balance of sodium chloride and other minerals and compounds to create sea water. Suddenly, you no longer had to be located near the ocean to pipe in salt water to fill your tanks: You could build your aquarium anywhere. Mystic Aquarium demonstrated this new reality perfectly.
With the construction of the Olde Mistick Village shopping complex and the arrival of more hotels and restaurants, Mystic continued to grow. Federal recognition of the Mohegan and Mashantucket Pequot tribal nations and the arrival of the Indian casinos coincided with the diminishment of military-industrial manufacturing in the 80s and early 90s. Roughly 20,000 lost manufacturing jobs in Eastern CT were replaced by an equal number of casino jobs, shifting the economy even more toward tourism, hospitality and gaming.
And now for our story. Mystic Aquarium was founded in 1973 as a for-profit attraction. A few years later, it applied for and gained non-profit 501c3 status under the corporate name Sea Research Foundation. This designation provided tax benefits, but more importantly allowed the organization to sell memberships and apply for grants and other forms of support as a mission-driven enterprise. That mission: To inspire people to care about and protect our ocean planet through research and education was extended in 1996 to include "exploration" alongside research and education through a major $52 million expansion and the arrival of Dr. Robert Ballard and establishment of the Institute for Exploration a year later.
The expansion, and the addition of Dr. Ballard's Institute for Exploration to the Aquarium, changed the dynamics of the organization. The sea may connect all things as Yale's Gaddis Smith wrote, but Dr. Ballard's relocation to Mystic Aquarium was not as immediate a fit as one might have expected. Ballard is not a fish guy; per se, even though he was once a dolphin trainer early in his career. Anyhow, dolphins are mammals, not fish. And those who study animal life in sunlit seas are not necessarily familiar or comfortable with the perpetual darkness of deep sea exploration. At the same time, people who visit aquariums are not necessarily prepared for a deep dive into plate tectonics, volcanic chemosynthesis or even ancient shipwrecks. They go to aquariums to see fish and have fun. Most are not expecting to be diverted by anything too serious, or too deep.
By 2006, under emerging new leadership, the aquarium completed an in-depth strategic plan which tapped into data, opinions and analysis collected from every level of the organization from Trustees and donors, to staff, volunteers, members, and the public. The single most compelling message to emerge was, quite simply, that people don't really know what we do. We are viewed as an attraction with little public understanding of our extensive research and education programs, or even why the individual considered by many to be the world's greatest living explorer, Robert Ballard, is based here.
In short, Mystic Aquarium had become a victim of its own success. Yes, it was Connecticut's largest non-casino attraction, with 700,000 annual visitors, but it was constrained by the perception of being a small local attraction based in semi-rural Mystic with little reach beyond Eastern Connecticut.
It was pretty clear that the pieces of our puzzle didn't quite fit together. We needed to find a way to gather under one roof our deep sea exploration division, our local and national education programs, our extensive and respected marine animal research and husbandry operation and a world-class aquarium. We couldn't really do fundraising as Mystic Aquarium in other potential donor markets since most already had their own aquariums and zoos.
Sea Research Foundation was our official corporate name, but until 2006, it only appeared on legal documents and contracts. In most instances, we were Sea Research foundation doing business as Mystic Aquarium. Kind of awkward. So why not bring Sea Research Foundation to the fore? After all, sea research was what we were always all about, going all the way back to the days of Instant Ocean and its brilliant inventor-scientist, the late Bill Kelley, who happened to be Mystic Aquarium's first president.
So we did just that. Sea Research Foundation became the parent, and the divisions were neatly organized under it. We redesigned everything accordingly, and started applying the new graphics to all communication, from business cards and stationary to advertising, online, vehicles and signage. It has taken a while to roll it all out: We didn't have the resources to do it all at once as Exxon once did. But over time the changes are becoming evident; visually, conceptually and operationally.
Sea Research Foundation Today
Armed with a new mission, a new leadership team, branding program, marketing strategy and realistic revenue and attendance goals, we began to roll out our program. We wanted to hit'em high, and hit'em low. That is, we wanted to begin building a national and international profile for Sea Research Foundation, while reversing the declining attendance trends for Mystic as a destination, and Mystic Aquarium as its centerpiece attraction, which despite some erosion in annual attendance since the major expansion, remains Connecticut's largest non-casino attraction.
We have initiated a variety of programs to re-boot the Mystic brand. We use a data-driven marketing strategy for Mystic Aquarium to understand our audiences better and target appropriate demographic and geographic markets efficiently. We are working closely with the new Governor and his administration to relaunch the Connecticut tourism and economic development program.
Along the way, Sea Research reached some milestones:
- Long-term debt settlement with major lending institution
- Strategic alliance with the National Geographic Society
- Acquisition of The JASON Project
- Cultural exchange with Mashantucket students and Inupiat villagers of Point Lay
- Travel and research partnership with Arctic Watch
- Partnership with RW Sentosa,Singapore
- Partnership with SANCCOB, Cape Town, SA
- Expansion of Board to include leaders in Research, Education, Science and Philanthropy
- Near completion of comprehensive campaign
- Opening of new Ocean Exploration Center on April 12, featuring Titanic: 12,450 ft BELOW, presented by United Technologies
In addition to being Connecticut's largest attraction, Aquarium-based education programs combined with our JASON and Immersion Learning systems reach about 2 million elementary, middle and high school students each year, making Sea Research New England's largest informal learning institution. We serve as a critical engine for bringing young people to studies and careers in STEM based industries. Our local economic impact is estimated at $80 million each year through jobs, hotel, restaurant and retail receipts, and ancillary spending. But this is not enough. Already topping the admission prices of most aquariums in the nation, we need your support. Yes, this is the pitch! Revenue from our aquarium operations covers about 60% of our annual operating budget. The rest comes from grants, membership and donations.
Here are a few suggestions as to how you -- gentlemen of the Old Guard -- can help.
- Become a lifetime member
- Become a volunteer
- Refer a friend
- Help me identify a potential corporate sponsor
- Become a donor: Endow a research chair; name a building; leave a legacy!
Sea Research Foundation and Mystic Aquarium exist to inspire people, young and old, to protect our ocean planet. We exist to serve you and future generations. I invite you to join us in this important work. Thank you.
§ § § § § § § §
Best wishes and see you all soon!
Children are so important to the life of our organization. We celebrate children in so many different ways – through our education programs which reach more than 1.5 million young people annually – through our onsite programs at Mystic Aquarium which attract 750,000 visitors a year.
For today’s blog, I wanted to share a message from my own son, Brendan who is in 2nd Grade at Deans Mill School in Stonington. I thought that he captured the essence of our mission in a rather direct way. Here is what he wrote about the future of our earth, in his own words (SIC).
What we do at Sea Research Foundation is important and impactful. Thank you for being part of this community.
- ~ Steve Coan
As Connecticut’s largest attraction and informal learning institution, Sea Research Foundation and Mystic Aquarium have a major stake in the successful implementation of the state’s new tourism marketing approach. We have to be forthright about the structures and processes that have proven successful in other markets and can work here. In that spirit, my op-ed in today’s Hartford Courant offers a new approach to streamline regional tourism and align with the Governor’s vision of putting Connecticut back on the map as a great place to visit, work, play and prosper.
Hello and Happy New Year,
2011 was tremendously rewarding for Sea Research Foundation. We made major strides forward in each of our operating divisions: Mystic Aquarium, Institute for Exploration, Immersion Learning and The JASON Project. Each of our operating areas has a specialized focus and at the same time shares content and strategy toward the holistic mission of protecting our ocean environment through research, education and exploration.
Mystic Aquarium is the fourth largest cultural attraction in New England, and the largest outside of Boston. Immersion Learning and The JASON Project are the leading marine science education programs in the world, serving nearly 2 million students annually. Institute for Exploration is one of the few entities in the world dedicated to global ocean exploration.
In October, I addressed a private gathering on ocean policy at The Metropolitan Club in New York City. This was an opportunity to articulate a few of the many ways in which Sea Research Foundation is caring for our oceans and engaging the public in protecting the ocean environment.
I would like to share with you some of the major accomplishments of the Sea Research Foundation team during 2011.
We began the year with the completion of major debt restructure which was closed on December 31, 2010. Thanks to Congressman Joe Courtney who led the Connecticut and Rhode Island congressional delegations in fighting for debt reduction. With their support, we reduced our long term debt with Citibank by $15 million, from $34 million to $19 million, and refinanced the balance over 30 years at a fixed rate of 5% interest. At the end of 2012, I am pleased to report that we will reduce our long-term debt by an additional $5 million to $14 million, and we are in the final stages of refinancing the balance with a local bank, Savings Institute of Willimantic, Connecticut, for 30 years at the same fixed rate of 5%. This translates into a reduction of $1.6 million in annual debt service.
Special thanks to Trustees Dan Verdier, Charles Gill and Jamie O’Connell, and to Chief Financial Officer Denise Armstrong and Corporate Counsel and Secretary of the Corporations, Steve Hazard. We are particularly grateful for the in-kind services of The Blackstone Group, Wachtel, Lipton, Rosen and Katz and to Tim Coleman, Jamie O'Connell, Jamie Baird, Phil Mindlin and William Washburn of Citibank; Roy Filkoff, Brendan Fox, Janet Werner and their respective teams. They worked together for over two years on the debt reduction project.
In early March, Mystic Aquarium was accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for a four-year term. I was joined at the accreditation hearing in Knoxville, Tennessee, by Executive Vice President for Research and Zoological Operations Dr. Tracy Romano, who led the accreditation process, and Vice President for Facilities and Capital Projects Keith Sorensen. Both provided extensive testimony to the committee. Afterwards, we received many compliments for the thorough way in which we approached accreditation and for the accomplishments of Mystic Aquarium including improvements to our facilities, guest services and exhibits.
Safety and security was singled out by the accreditation committee as an area of particular improvement. I am very grateful to Tom Thompson who assumed the newly created role of Director of Safety and Security. Under his leadership, and with the support and guidance of the staff who serve on the Safety and Security Committee, we have greatly improved our focus on these important issues, including instituting new procedures for evacuation and other emergency events and new security systems throughout the Mystic campus.
Accreditation is an extensive and exhaustive process. We take it very seriously because we have a fundamental responsibility to provide the highest level of care for our animals and safety in working with them. Mystic Aquarium had been granted a one-year extension on our prior accreditation so that we could complete the debt restructuring. We are very grateful to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for the support that they provide. We are proud to stand among the leading institutions accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
We also earned accreditation and certification from the State of Connecticut for our early childhood education program known as Sea School. Under the leadership of Vice President for Education and Conservation Kelly Matis and Mary Beth Sweeney, we are the first aquarium-based preschool in the nation to be certified. This is an exemplary program and in 2012 we will be developing the curriculum for export to other institutions around the world.
During the summer of 2011, Dr. Romano convened a Scientific Advisory Council to assist with the creation of a strategic plan for the organization’s research programs. Participants included luminaries from academia, other aquariums, corporate researchers and several of our Trustees, including Dr. George M. Milne, Jr., Chairman of the Board, who also serves as Chairman of the Advisory Council.
We are now actively engaged in several major international ocean conservation efforts. I am pleased to be a Trustee and Treasurer of the North American Marine Environment Protection Association and have given several talks to maritime industry groups over the past year. My most recent speech to the chief executive officers of major shipping companies can be found here. Trustees Clay Maitland and Carleen Lyden-Kluss are co-founders of the organization and are renowned leaders in the maritime industry. Vice President Kelly Matis and Vice President and Executive Producer of Immersion Learning Katie Cubina have put Sea Research Foundation in a leadership role within the New England Ocean Science Education Collaborative, supported by the National Science Foundation. We have also taken a leadership role in the White House’s Coastal America, Coastal Ecosystem Learning Center Network.
Under the direction of Vice President for Production Patrick Shea and a team from The JASON Project, we produced two live internet broadcasts, including live coverage of the annual Student Ocean Summit, which brings students from Mystic Aquarium and other institutions to Washington, D.C., to discuss ocean policy with lawmakers. We also produced a live broadcast from the Coastal Zone 2011 conference at Shedd Aquarium in Chicago. I was very surprised and humbled to receive the organization’s 2011 National Leadership Award during a meeting at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta in September.
Certainly, weather and the economy provided great challenges. In August our Ashburn, Virginia, offices were hit by an earthquake, and in September a tropical storm shuttered much of New England for more than a week. In October, just in time for the busiest weekend of the fall season, a freak blizzard dumped a foot of snow on much of Connecticut. The state was effectively shut down for more than a week. Thanks to our new generators, we were able to care for our animals, provide for many of our staff who were without power for several days, and stay open to many a grateful parent.
Despite these challenges, our flagship Mystic Aquarium will end calendar year 2011 up 4.1% in attendance from the previous year. Our new marketing campaign, “New England’s Hands-On Aquarium” was well received as were the increased number of touch tanks and interactive experiences for guests. The Nautilus Live Theater, with live shows from the Exploration Vessel Nautilus operating in various parts of the world, had record attendance. Crittercam, an exhibit presented by our partner National Geographic Society, was a smashing success. I want to take a moment to thank Trustee Terry Garcia, who is Executive Vice President at National Geographic Society, for his support and leadership in bringing our two institutions closer together.
Executive Vice President Peter Glankoff, working closely with Trustee and Chairman of the Marketing and Public Affairs Committee Steve Perrelli crafted our aggressive marketing effort. It has generated increased awareness about the breadth of Sea Research programs and accomplishments and gained traction for attendance and revenue at Mystic Aquarium.
We were very excited to welcome a male beluga whale, Naluark from Chicago's Shedd Aquarium. His transport was featured on major news outlets in the United States and abroad. Here are just a few examples:
The Daily Mail (UK) (Photos by our own Cheryl Miller)
Our Sea School’s involvement with the release of harbor seal pup Ares received widespread coverage. Here are some links to coverage of the latter:
It was our youngest whale, Juno, on loan from Sea World Orlando, who stole the show and our hearts. He was videoed appearing to dance to the music of a mariachi band, and the video went viral, appearing first on The Huffington Post, followed by The Tonight Show, The Today Show, Univision and many other media outlets. The YouTube video can be found here.
During 2011 Sea Research Foundation saw our rating increased to 4 stars, the highest possible, by Charity Navigator, an organization that reviews charities for donors. The rating includes evaluation of an organization’s financial condition, the percentage of funds that go towards mission programs, and the overall health of an organization. With a 4-star rating, Sea Research Foundation is considered “Exceptional: Exceeds industry standards and outperforms most charities in its cause.”
We also have some exceptional numbers to report from fund raising. Sea Research Foundation raised just over $11 million during 2011, a new record. This included $500,000 raised at our Ocean Commotion Gala. Special thanks to the event co-chairs, Trustee Susette Tibus and President’s Councilor Eric Janney. The evening featured celebrity comedian Paul Mecurio. He was joined by Senator Richard Blumenthal and Bishop Michael Cote of the Catholic Diocese of Norwich as speakers. Trustee Clay Maitland announced a major gift at the event in support of programming for the new Ocean Exploration Center.
I am particularly grateful to the staff and volunteers of Sea Research Foundation who this year pledged more than $300,000. Led by Co-Chairs Laurie Macha and Tom Clay, more than 40% of our staff has pledged support, far exceeding the national benchmark for employee giving. A special thank you goes to our Senior Vice President for Development David Garamella and his team, and to Chairman of the Development Committee, Trustee Tom Leiden.
Some highlights of major grants include a prestigious grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services to bring our continuing live coverage from the Exploration Vessel Nautilus to other aquariums and museums. The Alaska Fish and Wildlife Fund through Conoco Phillips awarded a major grant for beluga whale research; Chevron committed $500,000 in total for a combined JASON Project and Immersion Learning program in Texas; and the United States Department of Justice awarded $1.1 million to Immersion Learning to implement the program as a mentoring initiative nationwide.
We had a wonderful turnout at the dedication of the Foxwoods Marine Theater in early December. Sponsorship from Foxwoods was made possible through the leadership of Foxwoods President and CEO Scott Butera. Foxwoods is operated by the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, and over the years we have had a close relationship with them. The Arctic Coast exhibit was made possible through a $6 million gift from the Tribe in the 1990’s. Dr. Robert Ballard and Dr. Romano have both worked extensively with the Mashantucket Pequot Museum on various research and educational programs. Trustee Rodney Butler is Chairman of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Council and we appreciate his tremendous support and leadership.
The Board of Trustees approved construction of two new signature facilities. A new Ocean Exploration Center, sponsored by United Technologies, will open in April 2012. It will be built on the footprint of the existing Challenge of the Deep and features an exhibition developed by renowned former Disney Imagineer Timothy Delaney entitled, “Titanic: 12,500 Feet Below.” Thank you to Chairman and CEO of United Technologies Louis Chenevert and Charles Gill, Senior Vice President and Chief Legal Counsel of United Technologies and Vice Chairman of our Board of Trustees, who have both been instrumental in advancing this keystone project.
The Ocean Exploration Center and Titanic exhibition will open in time to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Unlike the ethically challenged exhibits that feature trinkets and human effects taken from the site of the Titanic, this exhibit will focus on the story and the science of how our celebrated Senior Scientist and President of Sea Research Foundation’s Institute for Exploration Dr. Ballard found the ship. The exhibition will include a model engine room where children can explore the marvels of the ship’s design, and interactive displays for adults and young people to learn about the science of finding the ship. It will be a unique and memorable experience that people will want to visit again and again.
The entire building will receive new interior and exterior treatments, a bold new entranceway and exhibits on modern deep ocean exploration. The XD Theater will be replaced with a new 4D Theater which combines special effects to create a thrilling “you are there” experience. The Titanic exhibit, opening in April 2012, will be followed by the unveiling of the William J. Drakos Gallery later in the year.
The Drakos Gallery, named for our dear late Trustee William J. “Bill” Drakos will also be a world class design featuring some of the current work of the Exploration Vessel Nautilus, also known as Dr. Ballard’s ship of exploration. We are very grateful to Bill’s son, Trustee Peter Drakos, and to his brothers, Jim Drakos and Andrew Drakos, and especially to their mother, Bill’s wife of more than 60 years, Teeny Drakos for their years of dedication and support.
The Board of Trustees also approved the construction of the George and Carol Milne Research Center. This facility will be located adjacent to the Aquatic Animal Study Center. It will feature new laboratories and will, for the first time, allow us to fully integrate water quality, veterinary care and biological research functions in one facility.
The impending opening of the George and Carol Milne Research Center is an opportunity to thank Dr. George M. Milne, Jr. for his tremendous leadership and vision as Chairman of the Board of Trustees, a role that he was re-elected to in early 2011. Dr. Milne has served as Chairman since 2001 and as a Trustee since 1996. He has provided a steady hand on the wheel of the organization as we chartered stormy seas and has guided, through his own leadership, a complete restructuring of the organization’s financial and philanthropic platform.
Thanks to a tremendous contribution from Trustees Thomas Leiden and Kathy Leiden, we have secured funding for two tenure track research scientists. Additionally, we welcomed Dr. Peter Auster, a professor emeritus of the University of Connecticut to our research faculty. Growing the research programs and developing an international program with a human and animal health issue focus is one of the top priorities of the organization and I am looking forward to continued growth in 2012.
The Board of Trustees, led by Chairman of the Nominating and Governance Committee Susette Tibus, elected four new members in 2011. Carleen Lyden-Kluss, President of Morgan Marketing and founder of the North American Marine Environment Protection Association was elected in May. Jamie O’Connell, a principal in The Blackstone Group, Dr. Peter Barr, President of Glenville State College in West Virginia, and Dr. Deborah Kochevar, Dean of the Cummings School of Veterinary Science at Tufts University were elected in November.
During 2011 we continued to develop deep and lasting relationships that underscore our global mission and presence. The Institute for Exploration continues to work closely with the government of Turkey. In May, we welcomed His Excellency Jurelang Zedkaia, President of the Marshall Islands, to our Mystic campus. We are working closely with the Marshall Islands to create a comprehensive education and ocean exploration effort for that nation. In March we welcomed Tan Hee Teck, President and CEO of Resort World Sentosa in Singapore, to Mystic and in July formalized a long-term strategic partnership to create and support marine science education programs for Marine Life Park, a new aquarium that will open in 2012. We also formalized relations with the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds near Cape Town, South Africa. This group is playing a vital role in the conservation of African penguins, which are a key part of the Mystic Aquarium collection, as well as other seabirds.
We have begun extensive work through the Institute for Exploration in Israel, Italy and Spain, as well as Australia which is home to the largest number of international users of Immersion Learning and The JASON Project. In late summer we formalized a key research collaboration with Arctic Watch in the Arctic Circle, where we will study beluga whales in the wild, and host guests from Mystic Aquarium who wish to view these beautiful animals in their natural setting.
The JASON Project has realized some predictable setbacks with federal funding. However, under the capable leadership of its Chief Operating Officer Dr. Eleanor Smalley and Chief Technology Officer Sean Smith the organization is moving quickly towards diversifying its funding and increasing its outreach to more students. Major funding and contracts have been secured from the State of Louisiana, Fairfax County Schools, Cincinnati Public Schools, Loudon County Schools, Chevron and many other sponsors. In June, the organization reintroduced the annual Educators Conference and released a new curriculum, “Terminal Velocity” which focuses on physics and includes extensive information on the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
Our Ocean Blue Catering team at Mystic Aquarium continues to bring great food and success to our daily lives. Under the leadership of Vice President Will Parks, the company set impressive sales records during 2011 and took over management of a beautiful new facility, Mystic Yachting Center, which can be used for all kinds of events. Ocean Blue Catering plays a critical role throughout our organization in managing sales of all programs and products, and in creating an atmosphere of trust and customer service. I am grateful for the many ways through which the team responds during times when our staff are on call and the many ways through which they provide in-kind services to other organizations including local food banks. Mostly, they make all of our events and programs a great and enjoyable success.
Finally, I want to say how proud I am of our continuing efforts to be an inclusive and accessible institution. Vice President Kelly Matis has instituted a wonderful program for special needs students at Stonington High School who work on the Mystic campus in various capacities. This has been a great experience for staff and for the students.
My sincere thanks to all of you for your continued standards of excellence and care, and for living our important mission in all that you do. We share many accomplishments from 2011, and we will share many more in 2012.
I am writing from Singapore where I have a busy schedule that includes building a partnership around biological research programs, ocean exploration and expanding our educational programming in this country. The weather is very nice, the country is amazingly clean, the people are friendly, and no, you cannot easily buy chewing gum.
Last week was quite a mix of activities. On Tuesday evening I met with a group of foundation executives and world ocean policy leaders at a small dinner in New York City. The topic of discussion at dinner was the state of the world’s oceans – and in particular a a report by an international panel of marine experts that suggests ocean life is facing unprecedented mass extinction due to human impacts on the ocean environment. More information and report summaries can be found here.
Dr. Alex Rogers, who is one of the key authors of the report, and who is an Oxford biologist specializing in deep ocean environments, was present at the dinner. I was able to describe the work that Sea Research Foundation is doing in the field of neuroimmunology to better understand stressors affecting marine mammals, and the work that we do in deep ocean exploration and education. I noted that education focused on ocean environments continues to be sorely lacking in global policy and the fundamental solution for increasing awareness.
I also noted the work that Sea Research is doing with the international shipping industry through the North American Marine Environment Protection Association (NAMEPA) led by Trustees Clay Maitland and Carleen Lyden-Kluss. Engaging the shipping industry in discussions around the ocean environment is vital in several important ways including more effective conservation measures on their parts and also in terms of engaging them in becoming monitors of the environment.
As we develop our biological research program there will be a much more deliberate focus on a global framework focusing on connections between ocean health and human health. We will grow our competencies and capabilities in the area of conservation research. With support from Trustee Tom Leiden, we are presently searching for two research scientists and working with a variety of institutions including Tufts University and Mote Marine Laboratory to grow our research program.
Dr. Tracy Romano will continue to lead the effort in addition to her duties leading zoological operations. The latter is appropriately based within a research framework and Dr. Romano has done an excellent job of restoring and renewing our excellence in this area.
Perhaps like many of you, I have been very disturbed by the rash of dead seals showing up on Cape Cod beaches over the past few weeks as victims of gunshots. Some theorize that as the Gray Seal population has rebounded in Cape Cod Bay, they are attracting predators such as sharks which in turn create challenges for an economy dependent upon sandy, swimmable beaches. Others theorize that the seals are eating large quantities of fish, diminishing stocks for the local fishing fleets.
We know that seals and other marine mammals are vital to a healthy and sustainable ecosystem. The resurgence of the Gray Seal population on Cape Cod is a sign of health and should be welcomed as such. Only when we adjust our economic activities to the balance of nature do we create sustainable long-term industries.
Some people have correctly written in newspaper blogs that sometimes we focus more attention on a story such as the death of seals then we do on the murder of human beings in many of our cities, a reality that occurs in larger numbers and with greater frequency than this particular set of incidents. However, we need to remind ourselves that the plight of animals and humans are inter-related. When we care for one we care for the other; they are intertwined moral imperatives. The willful killing of any mammal is a tragedy that should be condemned and lamented for the loss that the death brings.
On Friday, June 10, Mystic Aquarium hosted two United States Senators, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse from Rhode Island and Senator Richard Blumenthal from Connecticut. The evening was a tribute to Senator Whitehouse who has single-handedly resurrected the ocean caucus – gathering a bipartisan group of Senators – who care about ocean issues and seek to find common ground in relation to ocean policy. The last time that the Senate had an ocean caucus was under the leadership of Senator Fritz Hollings of South Carolina who retired several years ago.
Senator Blumenthal expressed his keen support for our educational outreach programs during his talk. Earlier in the evening and before he arrived, he telephoned me to talk about how the Fiscal Year 2011 federal budget was impacting our programs. He has pledged to help in whatever way that he can and I know that he will, but the rancorous tone in Washington seems to be keeping progress on many important issues, including funding for our programs, at bay.
Much has been happening to kick-start our summer season. Here are some advertisements that have run recently and some great stories on Mystic Aquarium:
Also, as you drive up and down I95, keep an eye out for our new billboards!
I want to say a special thank you to Director of Guest and Member Services Celinda Beaudreau who has served as chair of the Accessibility Committee since its inception a few years ago. Under Celinda's leadership we have made tremendous strides in improving accessibility for guests with physical and other challenges. Celinda brought to this role a passion for providing people with the best possible experience at Mystic Aquarium as well as an innate sensitivity to the special needs of individuals with particular physical and emotional challenges.
Celinda has asked that she be allowed to step down as chair of the committee and I have reluctantly accepted her wish to focus on other aspects of Guest services. I will be appointing a new chair in the next few weeks but I want to thank her for the tremendous leadership that she has brought to this important area of focus for our organization.
Volunteer Appreciation Night at Mystic Aquarium on June 6 brought out several hundred volunteers for a fun-packed evening of food, festivity and awards. Board of Trustees Vice-Chairman Dan Verdier welcomed and thanked our volunteers for their incredible work. And I thanked Dan for his own many and varied volunteer contributions as a Trustee.
The “Jersey Shore” video, starring husbandry staff, saluted our volunteers in hilarious fashion. Once again, volunteer Marliese Friedman swept the “Most Volunteer Hours” category with an astounding 1,075 hours of donated time. Nancy Hicks came in with an impressive 920 hours. Full-time high school student Dominique Jeffers landed an incredible 728 hours, often working entire weekends to beat the band. All told, volunteers contributed nearly 55,000 hours of work across many critical areas of aquarium this year. Congratulations and thanks to all of our volunteers who enable Sea Research Foundation to serve its animals, guests and important mission. And thank you, Volunteer Supervisor Tracy Sullivan, for leading the charge and inspiring our amazing volunteers.
And thanks to all of you - guests, volunteers, Trustees, staff, members, and friends - for your continued contributions to making Mystic Aquarium a great place to visit and a great place to work.
Dear Friend, The thing about this BLOG is that I feel guilty when I don’t write regularly! I have missed you and I hope you have missed hearing from me too! On Sunday morning, Senior Vice President for Research and Zoological Operations, Dr. Tracy Romano, Vice President for Facilities and Capital Projects, Keith Sorensen and I met in the room dubbed “Pre-Hearing Room” at the Marriott Hotel in Chattanooga Tennessee at 7:30 AM to get ready for our 8:00 AM AZA accreditation hearing. Keith and Tracy wrote out some things together in preparation. I just paced the room. Then we went before the Accreditation Committee, answered lots of questions, and went to the “Post-Hearing Room”. I joked that it was like pre-op and post-op at the hospital! In any case, it was quite a relief when the Chair of the Committee came to see us and reported that Mystic Aquarium has been reaccredited. This is great news, as for more than two years we were very concerned about losing accreditation because of our large indebtedness. With the combination of a debt restructure, reduction of debt, the capital campaign that is underway, and everyone’s good work in showcasing our facilities and programs to the Accreditation Visiting Committee, we prevailed. Accreditation is a rigorous process and we should all be proud that it affirms that Mystic Aquarium operates at the highest possible standards and is dedicated to continuous improvement.
Senior Vice President Peter Glankoff attended the memorial service for Mystic Aquarium founding president, Bill Kelley, who passed away on February 8 at his home in Cottonwood, Arizona at age 93. A remarkable person whose interests spanned the universe – from marine biology, to geology and astronomy, Bill Kelley’s passion for invention, teaching and lifelong learning is embodied in the Sea Research Foundation mission. His far-ranging-interests are hinted at in the Aquarium’s Fluorescent Corals exhibit, inspired by and dedicated to Bill Kelley, and an exhibit featuring his invention, the OmniScope, set to open in May, date to be announced. Peter reported that a fascinating spectrum of people came out to pay tribute to Bill, from NASA scientists, to educators, students, astronomers and aquarists. Click here to read Peter’s tribute. The entire Sea Research community extends its condolences to Bill’s wonderful wife, Lois, and other family members and friends who join us in mourning the loss of this great pioneer, inventor, and educator. We have received some great press lately. Here are two clips that appeared on New York Channel 1, a very highly watched cable station in the Big Apple.
Last Friday, USA Today ranked Mystic Aquarium’s sleepover programs as among the “top 10 in the nation.” Here is the story. A wonderful tribute to Chairman of the Board George M. Milne, Jr. appeared in The Wall Street Journal a few weeks ago. Here is the link to that story. We have also had great success on the grants front. Congratulations to Dr. Tracy Romano who received an Office of Naval Research grant for continuing study of the immune systems of Beluga Whales, as well as funding to continue the student exchange program between Point Lay, Alaska and the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. Also, Dr. Eleanor Smalley received news of a major grant from the State of Louisiana to implement the JASON Project and Immersion Learning in that state.
Since January, I have been travelling quite a bit. I don’t mind it too much and we seem to be making progress on fund raising for our various programs. My sense is that Patti misses me, but Patrick, Danielle and Brendan seem to be somewhat indifferent! However, our faithful dog Oscar sat in my bedroom and cried last week when he saw me get my suitcase out of the closet. Thank you, Oscar – you truly are loyal!
See you all soon!