They’re busting up the old gang.
The giant Pacific octopus will head north to Baltimore, along with the loggerhead sea turtle. The alligator pair will move south to Louisiana, where they will be released into the wild south of New Orleans. And Toby, the blue lobster — well, he’s still looking for a new home.
After more than 100 years in the District, the National Aquarium shut its doors Monday — one of the few closures in town this week not related to the bickering on Capitol Hill.
The Department of Commerce, which has housed generations of alligators, electric eels and Pacific octopuses in its basement, needs more space. That means, starting today, more than 250 species — 2,500 creatures in all — are being relocated. Many will go to other aquariums or zoos around the country, officials said.
Even its most ardent supporters acknowledge that the National Aquarium wasn’t the most glamorous of tourist spots despite a major facelift in 2006. Unlike its sister facility in Baltimore, there are no dolphins, there’s no Atlantic coral reef. But fans of the space appreciated it for what it was — a watery respite in the middle of a bustling downtown. On its final day, the 2 p.m. feeding of the sharks attracted an appreciative crowd of more than 50 people.
“It’s small, but there’s a lot to see here if you really take the time,” said Rayna Richardson, a support specialist for veterans who came with her mother, Jane Ferrara, for a last visit.
The pair lingered in front of the Florida Keys exhibit, admiring the doctor fish and the neon gobys and snapping pictures.
“We wanted to make sure we could see it one last time,” Ferrara said. “I’m just so saddened it’s closing.”
Nearby, 2-year-old Carter Blackson squealed in delight as he pointed at brightly colored fish.
“Oh, he’s scary,” he said as his mother, Yasmin Hawkins, held him closer to the glass.
Aquarium officials hope to retain a presence in the District, but weren’t able to settle on new plans before they had to vacate the space at the Commerce Department, said spokeswoman Kate Hendrickson. Efforts to find a new home will continue, she said.
The aquarium has a long history in the District. It opened in 1885 and included a collection of 180 species — fish, reptiles and other aquatic creatures. It opened in its current space in 1932. In 1982, it lost its federal funding and became a nonprofit organization. Since then it has been supported by donations and admission fees. About 200,000 visitors toured the facility annually.
Aquarium officials announced in May that it would close. The past few weeks have been tough for its full-time staff of 14, not to mention the legions of volunteers, such as Dan Higgins, who dubbed the aquarium “a treasure.”
“I volunteer at a lot of places, but this is the one volunteer job where I learn something new every time I show up,” he said.
Even though staff members knew closure was imminent, they said that didn’t make Monday any easier. They gathered for a farewell luncheon and barbecue.
“It’s sad,” said curator Jay Bradley, a 15-year veteran. “We’ve put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into this place.”
CJ Weaver, a herpetologist, said there was always hope that something might change. He said he’ll miss the close-knit crew he’s worked with for almost two years.
But there is still work to be done. Weaver will stay to help prepare the aquarium’s two alligators for their flight Tuesday to Louisiana. And a new home needs to be firmed up for Toby, a blue lobster caught in the waters near Ocean City.
On Monday, Katie Williams filleted one last batch of mackerel and herring for the 2 p.m. shark feeding. Standing in front of the Channel Islands display, home to leopard sharks and a collection of bright orange sunstars, she smiled.
“Thank you for coming,” she told the crowd. “We’ll miss having you guys visit us every day.”