NEW YORK >> The new building sticks out over the Boardwalk, jutting toward the water, its facade wrapped in shimmery aluminum panels that move, like schools of fish, with the ocean breeze. The rippling panels join the clattery Cyclone, screaming teenagers, scent of suntan lotion and swarms of sea gulls picking at scraps of hot dog buns.
Coney Island’s latest attraction, “Ocean Wonders: Sharks!,” opened June 30 at the New York Aquarium.
For years, where the aquarium met the Boardwalk there used to be a blank stretch of wall. The institution’s 14-acre campus hid behind that wall, turning its back to the beach. Amid the freak shows and flashing lights, it was a charming, earnest, dated outlier, a little like an aging middle school on the Vegas strip. You could smell the salt air if you watched the sea lions in the aquarium’s Aquatheater or before you entered Conservation Hall to check out the rays at Glover’s Reef.
But you couldn’t even see the Atlantic.
>> Where: New York Aquarium, Surf Avenue and West Eighth Street, Brooklyn
>> Phone: 718-220-5100
>> On the net: nyaquarium.com
Then the Atlantic came to the aquarium with Hurricane Sandy. It invaded via Coney Island Creek. The seawater surged through vents and ducts, swamping basements, knocking out electricity and mechanical equipment, including all the pumps and emergency generators that kept the 12,000 or so fish and marine mammals alive.
A heroic effort by the aquarium salvaged 85 percent of the animals. But the damage was done. More than half the campus was left in shambles. The storm hit just days before ground was to have been broken on “Ocean Wonders.” The idea for it had been around for years. At the time, the aquarium’s resident sand shark, Bertha, was 40ish. She was expected to move in.
Bertha died a decade ago.
Now, six years after Sandy, much of the campus is still years from reopening. But the shark display is finally completed. The $146 million, 57,500-square-foot pavilion looks a bit like a World War II battleship, marooned on the beach. Those rippling aluminum panels — some 33,000 of them — simulate shiny mylar ribbons, tying the new building up in bows.
Ned Kahn, a California artist, devised the panels. Susan Chin, chief architect and vice president of planning and design for the Wildlife Conservation Society, which runs the aquarium, oversaw the project.
Maybe their biggest move, architecturally speaking, was to break through that wall separating the aquarium from the beach, seducing Coney Island visitors and residents toward what had been a barren stretch of the Boardwalk.
The overall effect makes the aquarium more of a visible, welcoming presence and neighbor. Four out of five visitors to the aquarium, it turns out, come from within a 10-mile radius, meaning most come from Brooklyn.
As Jon Forrest Dohlin, the aquarium’s director, puts it, “Ocean Wonders” is not just a long overdue upgrade for the institution. It’s also “a bridge to the community,” which deserves no less.
Inside, the exhibit features 115 species sharing 784,000 gallons of water. There are kite-shaped cow-nose rays, bluntnose rays and roughtail rays. There are whitespotted bamboo sharks and brownbanded bamboo sharks. There are wobbegongs — also sharks, sometimes called “the ambush kings” — and loggerhead sea turtles, along with clearnose skates, little skates and smooth dogfish. The building is, in effect, a huge life-support system for diverse animals, which also accommodates people.
Some 26 species of sharks, you may be surprised to learn, live in the New York area. They inhabit the Hudson Canyon, off the Jersey Shore, which is the size of the Grand Canyon. They populate shipwrecks like the USS San Diego, off Long Island. They’re in the waters right off Coney Island. The exhibition is mostly devoted to these local places, ending with a 600,000-gallon, kidney-shaped tank that simulates the canyon’s edge, with the ocean drifting off into darkness.
Past the exit, an outdoor ramp inclines visitors toward the roof of the building where the Atlantic suddenly spreads out below. You can see Luna Park in one direction, Brighton Beach in the other, and search for some of the marine wildlife you just saw in the diamond-speckled waves, sharks included. The architectural point is clear: Sharks aren’t just movie stars and aquarium attractions.
They’re also our neighbors — as much a part of Coney Island as the roller coasters and summer dreams.