Jamie McMurdie and her daughter Nola were among the initial pulse of visitors to pass through the doors Monday morning when the Seattle Aquarium reopened for the first time since March 12.

It was a welcome relief after three months cooped up together because of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.

“We’re just trying to get back to some sort of normal routine again,” McMurdie said. “We have a membership so when we heard it was open, we decided to come back and check it out again. We were here once a week before.”

A diver feeds the fish swimming around in the Window on Washington Waters exhibit, entertaining visitors during the Seattle Aquarium’s reopening on Monday, June 30. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
A diver feeds the fish swimming around in the Window on Washington Waters exhibit, entertaining visitors during the Seattle Aquarium’s reopening on Monday, June 30. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

McMurdie and Nola practically had the place to themselves. Aquarium administrators decided to keep capacity at 15% of normal as King County moves into Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s coronavirus reopening plan, which allows up to 25% occupancy. That left the aquarium with plenty of social-distancing space with rooms that were entirely empty on occasion.

That’s a stark difference from the usual summer day when an international crowd of around 5,000 loud, colorful and happy visitors might cycle through the exhibits on the Salish Sea and its whales, seals, fish and other marine life.

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“We have chosen to limit ourselves at 15% capacity at this point until we understand the flow of everything — coming in with a one-way path, physical distancing,” said Tim Kuniholm, the aquarium’s director of public affairs and marketing. “We have our tickets capped at no more than 300 in the building. So the thing is with tourism being almost nonexistent this year, it’s an opportunity for locals to really rediscover the Seattle Aquarium in a time when they would never be able to see it in this kind of intimate manner. So it’s really a great opportunity.”

As Northern fur seals swim, Ari Troka from the Seattle Aquarium staff cleans the surfaces in the exhibit every hour. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
As Northern fur seals swim, Ari Troka from the Seattle Aquarium staff cleans the surfaces in the exhibit every hour. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

The Seattle Aquarium, a nonprofit, has kept a skeleton crew of workers on-site to care for the animals, secure the premises and handle upkeep. Others worked from home. A few seasonal employees were laid off and the aquarium is using furloughs to help defray costs. Crowds in the building will help bring people back to work, but that’s not really the point, said Erin Meyer, the aquarium’s director of conservation programs and partnerships.

“Reopening is about reconnecting with our mission inspiring conservation of our marine environment,” Meyer said. “And we can’t do that without being able to interact with guests.”

She said the aquarium has been advancing its conservation programs virtually through its website and is still conducting some of its research online. But it doesn’t have the same impact as real-life interaction. “We can’t inspire people without the people.”

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Other restrictions in place during Phase 2 include mandatory masks for everyone over age 2, one-way progress through the exhibits, mandatory 6-foot distancing (enhanced by day-glow stickers of eels and skates on the floor), reduced gift-shop occupancy and, perhaps most heart-wrenching, a no-touch rule at the tide pools, where a legion of children have come finger-to-spike with sea urchins and many other slippery, slimy and fascinating creatures.

The manta ray points visitors in the right direction as they walk through the Seattle Aquarium exhibits. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)
The manta ray points visitors in the right direction as they walk through the Seattle Aquarium exhibits. (Steve Ringman / The Seattle Times)

Like McMurdie and Nola, Kyle Borror and his 1-year-old daughter, Allie, were among the first through the door when the aquarium reopened. Frequent visitors before the pandemic shut things down, they were finding the differences striking. Borror thought it was so quiet it was a bit “eerie.”

Nothing about the pandemic is fair, but it seems especially hard for children who don’t understand why they’re suddenly getting in trouble for activities that used to be fun.

“She likes to touch anemones in the tide pools,” Borror said. “It’s hard to tell her no. She doesn’t understand. For her, it’s not so bad because she doesn’t run around as much. But I can’t imagine trying to tell a 5-year-old that they can’t go the way that they’re used to going.”

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Seattle Aquarium visitors must reserve tickets and entry times online in advance at seattleaquarium.org. Gates are open from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, with exhibits closing at 6 p.m. Tickets are $34.95 for adults ($29.95 for Washington state residents), $24.95 for children ages 4 to 12 ($19.95 for Washington residents), and free for children under the age of 3 and for members.