The Maine Aquarium in Saco, which closed in 1997. The Maine State Aquarium in Boothbay remains open for business. Courtesy Zac McDorr

When I was 12 years old, my mother got me a very special birthday present. While watching the “Great TV Auction” (somebody bring that back!) she had bid on a “Be a Marine Biologist for a Day” ticket. This entitled the bearer to a whole day behind the scenes at the Maine Aquarium in Saco. I was very excited indeed.

Zac McDorr is the founder of the Bath Maine History Center on Facebook. You can reach him at [email protected]

I arrived in Saco wearing my usual baggy sweatpants and huge T-shirt and was greeted by one of the scientists. Sure enough, he took me behind the scenes to the employees-only area, where I could see the back of the tanks and marvel at the giant system of pipes and filters that kept the water safe for the animals. I met the scientists and employees and saw the tanks of breeding or sick fish. It felt amazing to be an insider and see all of the things that the public was normally not allowed to see.

The best part was feeding time. I did not get to feed the penguins, they explained, because apparently I might get bit. But I did get to feed many of the fish, and I starred in one of the seal feedings. Each day the seals were fed three times in front of visitors, and I got to be in there with the trainer. The seals ate fish right out of my hand. What a semi-embarrassing, yet memorable experience.

The same experience was offered again the following year on the “Great TV Auction,” and I begged my mother to buy it for me. She thought I should let some other boy or girl have the chance to go.

I dreamed of working there someday and the dream almost came true. In 1997 I moved briefly to Old Orchard Beach and was hired by the Maine Aquarium to take care of a small branch aquarium at the head of the big pier. It would be my job to feed the fish and take care of them twice a day, and I hoped the opportunity might lead to a better job at the actual aquarium in Saco.

However, three days before I was due to start the job, I received a disappointing phone call from the man who hired me. He explained that the aquarium was going out of business. “So this means I’m out of a job?” I asked. “We’re all out of a job,” he answered.

So much for the dream. I went back to work at Denny’s in Brunswick and met my first wife there a few days later. It’s safe to say that my life would have taken a very different trajectory if the Maine Aquarium had stayed open.

The Aquarium, which did not receive government funds, had filed for bankruptcy protection. The judge allowed its creditors to sell off the valuable tract of land that it sat on to a developer. The Aquarium owner tried to buy a warehouse to move the aquarium to, but the deal fell through and he sued his own lawyer for malpractice. I wonder what happened to all of the penguins, seals and fish?

Interestingly, the ancient Aquarium website from 23 years ago is still online. It gives a written tour of the building: walking over the duck pond, coming into the entrance to see the penguins on the left and the gift shop on the right, watching a video presentation and meeting the seals Sparky and Fuzzy (Fuzzy was from Georgetown.) Then the tropic exhibit and the shark tank. It even offers $25 for each picture of the aquarium sent in.

Weirdly, though, the homepage offers a $50,000 reward for information about the individuals who were “working behind the scenes to close the Maine Aquarium” and bring them to justice. The owner seems to think that he was the victim of some kind of evil conspiracy to bankrupt the aquarium, and he hopes to recover enough money to get back into business. I wish him well in that endeavor. In the meantime, you should bring your kids down to the Maine State Aquarium in Boothbay to get their hands on some real Maine sea life.

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