Following a visit to an Italian aquarium in the 1890s, Michigan Representative David Heineman returned home and sponsored legislation to fund the building of a similar aquarium in the growing city of Detroit. Funds were approved and the Belle Isle Aquarium and its sister structure the Anna Scripps Whitcomb Conservatory were constructed, opening together in 1904.
At the time of its opening it was the 6th largest aquarium in the world with tanks for both salt and freshwater fish. Above the entrance is a carving of Neptune, the Roman god of the seas, and below his likeness is carved Detroit’s city motto, "Speramus meliora; resurget cineribus" (“We hope for better things; it will rise from the ashes”).
During the Great Depression the aquarium remained open although cuts in funding meant that some of the fish being kept on display had to be removed. Local stories tell of a sea turtle that had been on display being sold to the city’s fish market to be used for turtle soup, but despite depressions and war, the aquarium stayed open until 2005. At the time of its closure it was the longest continually running aquarium in the United States and the only public aquarium in the state of Michigan.
The restoration of the building became the goal of many concerned local groups. Non-binding resolutions voted on by Detroit citizens overwhelmingly supported restoration. On September 15, 2012, The Belle Isle Aquarium officially reopened. Running on support of volunteers the aquarium hours are Saturdays only from 10am - 3pm.