At the Aquarium
Setting Her Sights
on Boston and Beyond
Walk into Vikki Spruill’s office with its views of Central Wharf and the Rose Kennedy Greenway, and—apart from Boston Harbor—the first thing to catch the eye is a sign she placed on her bookshelf her first day as President and CEO of the New England Aquarium: If your ship hasn’t come in, swim out to it.
It’s exactly what Spruill has been doing her entire life.
An Army brat who moved around the globe as a child, she spent her high school and college years primarily along the Gulf Coast. It’s there she fell in love with the oceans at a young age and wanted to become a marine biologist. It was a dream she shared with her high school science teacher.
“He told me there wasn’t a place for women in the sciences,” said Spruill.
Spruill eventually took her communications degrees and years of experience in strategic communications and marketing to The Pew Charitable Trusts, where she founded and led SeaWeb. This innovative initiative promoted the intersection of marine science with strategic communications and policy. Later, she co-founded COMPASS, which helps scientists more effectively communicate environmental issues to policymakers, media, and the public. She raised her profile and overall awareness of ocean conservation, science translation and communication, and policy advocacy and philanthropy in her roles as President and CEO of such powerhouse organizations as Ocean Conservancy and, most recently, the Council on Foundations.
So why the New England Aquarium and why now?
“For the past two years, I’ve watched the erosion of environmental protections and the disregard for science and science-based policies,” said Spruill. “I’ve worked at the national and international levels for most of my career and want to bring those experiences to the community-based level where, traditionally, change has had its origins. The Aquarium is a seminal research and conservation institution, staffed by an exceptional team already at the vanguard of ocean conservation, and Boston is steeped in maritime history. I can’t think of a better place to be than among the best and brightest at the New England Aquarium.”
Spruill said she believes the public and policymakers are eager to contribute to ocean conservation actions, but people often don’t know where to start. She cited an Association of Zoos & Aquariums survey that showed more than 181 million people visit aquariums and zoos each year— more than the combined annual attendance of the National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, and National Basketball Association.
“They’re looking for direction,” said Spruill. “They want someone to lead them. The New England Aquarium has a unique advantage in that we combine 1.4 million visitors a year who visit our Main Building with cutting-edge scientific research, education programs, and a deep commitment to community engagement, conservation, and action. Policymakers listen to their constituents and, if they are not educated and informed about conservation challenges facing the ocean, we will never move the needle on much needed protections.”
Julie Packard, longtime Executive Director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, believes Spruill is just the person to help give that direction. “Vikki has been a real leader and innovator in the cause of ocean conservation. What distinguishes her contributions to this field has really been her focus on marketing and communications, and her ideas about influencing the public about change,” said Packard, who has worked with Spruill on behalf of the oceans for decades.
But it’s not simply Spruill’s communications skills that make her the perfect fit for the Aquarium, it’s how she builds partnerships and communities within communities to turn words into action.
“I’m thrilled she’s the President of the New England Aquarium, what an exciting opportunity for Boston,” said Jim Canales, President of the Boston-based Barr Foundation, which seeks as part of its mission to build strategic partnerships to advance climate change solutions. “Over the years, the role of the Aquarium has shifted in how it engages the public. Vikki brings a skill set that focuses on collaboration and solutions. She’s partnership-oriented yet is a leader.”
Part of Spruill’s role that she’s most excited about will be expanding the reach of the Aquarium’s recently launched research and conservation institute, the Anderson Cabot Center for Ocean Life. “It’s an exciting time for the Anderson Cabot Center,” said Spruill. “When governments, businesses, and stakeholders are eager for conservation Aquarium President and CEO Vikki Spruill talks with teen intern Chika Chukwu at the top of the Giant Ocean Tank. solutions, we can elevate our contributions to the work. We can marry the attributes of our beloved Aquarium with conservation solutions for healthier oceans.”
And that means addressing climate change. “I don’t think there’s a more important issue than climate change—globally, nationally, and locally,” said Spruill, noting the oceans are at a pivotal juncture when it comes to climate change.
Dr. Jane Lubchenco, distinguished Professor of Marine Studies at Oregon State University and past U.S. Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, believes Spruill is more than ready for the challenge. “Vikki is the perfect leader at the perfect time for a storied aquarium,” said Lubchenco. “It’s a pivotal time because the ocean is just coming into its time, coming onto peoples’ radars. Vikki’s a stellar leader. She knows how to harness the talents and energy of a dynamic team.”
In spite of the daunting conservation challenges, Spruill remains energetically optimistic. Looking out over Boston Harbor from her Aquarium office, Spruill smiles when asked about the obstacles that lie ahead. Said Spruill, “No matter how audacious the challenge, it always comes back to individual people and their community-based actions that make a positive difference in the world. And that’s what we do at the Aquarium. All of us, together.”