Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles written by Kristen Taylor who together with her husband Jon, made the decision to give up a traditional “city life” and move to the North Country in the United States. This month Kristen interviews the owners of AquaZoo.
Taking the Plunge: Stories of Year-Round Thousand Islands Life: AquaZoo - Treasure and Local Lore Await in A-Bay
Situated between the Thousand Islands Bridge and downtown Alexandria Bay exists a local treasure welcoming treasure seekers of all ages. This handcrafted oasis is filled with sparkling clean water inhabited by 151 species including freshwater and saltwater fish, inverts, alligators, sharks and coral from around the world. Opportunities to touch and feed live sea creatures and meet movie star impersonators from blockbuster hits (such as Finding Nemo) await for all visitors. And as extraordinary as the venue is the tale of its owners, Dave and Mary, who describe their “plunge” into Thousand Islands life as the “modern day story of Boldt Castle.” You really will “be surprised at what’s inside” when you visit: AquaZoo, America’s only family owned and operated public aquarium.
The story of AquaZoo began in 1977 when Dave Roberts, an aquarium shop owner from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, set out on a fishing trip that unexpectedly landed him in the Thousand Islands. Five years later, he brought his new bride, Mary, to the Thousand Islands for a honeymoon. As Dave did five years earlier, Mary immediately fell in love with the area.
“On our honeymoon Mary asked me to promise her that she could live here,” recalls Dave. “I walked over to my car and wrote down on a piece of paper, ‘This ticket is good for one dream come true.’ Eleven years later, in 1995, that dream came true.”
Selling everything and leaving behind family and friends, Dave and Mary decided to try out the idea of opening their very own public aquarium. “Everyone thought we were a little crazy,” says Dave. “I was always known to be a little crazy, but this time they thought I went overboard. It’s a strange idea to start a public aquarium. All of them are state, corporate or federally operated.”
Surprisingly for Dave and Mary, finding a space to open a public aquarium in the North Country was a daunting endeavor. “I must have asked 20 people from Cape Vincent to Clayton if they would rent us places to open our aquarium and everyone said ‘no’,” notes Dave. Finally in 1996, Dave and Mary signed a lease to open their privately owned public aquarium at their current location and eventually the couple was able to buy the property and expand.
“We started with 13 exhibits in about 900 square feet,” recalls Mary. “It’s truly been a labor of love. I really think ours is a modern day version of the Boldt Castle story. Over time we’ve been able to build this. This is our Boldt Castle.” Today AquaZoo houses over 50 aquarium exhibits as well as a gift shop.
Known as “The Aquarium Doc” in Wilkes-Barre, Dave has always taken great pride in ensuring that his aquarium inhabitants are in great health. In fact, some of the reptiles and fish that can be seen today—including many of the piranhas, the twenty-two-year-old Florida Gar, the clown knifefish, lungfish and “Big Al” the alligator—have been with Dave and Mary since the beginning of AquaZoo.
“Big Al” was two-years-old and only three feet long when Dave and Mary received him from an alligator farm in Florida in 1996. Two years later Dave and Mary received “Little Al”. As his name suggests, “Little Al” is the smaller of the two alligators at AquaZoo. Dave and Mary use the alligators to teach children on class field trips about conservation.
Though not all of AquaZoo’s residents have names all of them have stories. One of the aquarium’s red tilapia was in a fight with a roommate leaving it with an obvious dislocated jaw (see photo). The maroon clownfish often “spit gravel at their owners in an attempt to intimidate them” and Dave and Mary relay that having to catch the clownfish in a container is “easier said than done.”
Also on display at AquaZoo is an albino waterdog, a very rare amphibian with a three-chamber heart that has amazing regeneration capabilities. A nurse shark, which shares a tank with its only compatible roommate, a tuttut grouper, is also awaiting visitors. And for a majority of summer, a shark pup has been incubating in its protective egg case called a “mermaid’s purse”. If it has not already, this bottom-dwelling shark will use its sandpaper-like skin to break through the mermaid’s purse and will eventually grow to over three feet long. Living with the shark pup is a cleaner shrimp, a welcome roommate that acts as the medic of saltwater aquariums by cleaning the parasites off of fish.
Patrons of AquaZoo can expect something new, different and exciting visit after visit. Dave continues to keep this promise each year by spending the off-season making the AquaZoo experience even more enjoyable for visitors of all ages. “We have visitors come back year-after-year to see what we’ve changed and added. We do it for them and for ourselves,” says Mary.
It has been almost 30 years since Dave and Mary’s honeymoon trip to the Thousand Islands. Mary says about the couple’s River Journey, “It’s not for the faint of heart. You can’t expect to be rich, but we’re in heaven. I still love to see the bridge. I still love to walk down to the boat and float around in Swan Bay, always hoping no one is in our spot.”
“We couldn’t have done all of this without the support of this community,” adds Dave. “Businesses around us tell their customers to come check us out and even the tour boats announce us and urge people to stop by.”
AquaZoo is a very special treasure awaiting Thousand Islands’ passersby and residents of all ages. Stop by soon! Dave and Mary will be there to greet you.
Learn more about AquaZoo and like them on Facebook .
By Kristen Taylor
Kristen Taylor lives in Clayton, New York, with her family, including her husband, Jon, and daughter, Grace. She is the owner and founder of Taylored PR , a marketing and public relations company, and Vice President of Marketing and Operations for her husband’s architecture firm, Taylored Architecture PLLC. Before moving to Clayton, Kristen spent eight years in Washington, D.C., where she graduated from The George Washington University and worked as Vice President of a strategic communications firm.