Having reached an all-time high in attendance during the bicentennial year of 1976, the decades since have presented challenges for all outdoor history museums as both the pace of work and the range of leisure-time pursuits have increased for Americans. Mystic Seaport continued to refine itself through the 1980s, building new bulkheads along its waterfront, improving visitor access, and expanding its collections, notably with the acquisition of the Rosenfeld Collection of maritime photographs, which numbers close to a million images.
- June — First Sea Music Festival.
- Education department begins roleplaying (first-person interpretation) at the Museum.
- Captain George Moffett replaces Captain Biff Bowker as skipper of Brilliant.
- September — work begins on re-decking the Joseph Conrad.
- December — Rosenfeld collection of maritime photographs purchased by the Museum.
- 18 April — Mystic Maritime Gallery of Contemporary Art opens at the Mystic Seaport Store.
- 27 September — Museum escapes serious damage from Hurricane Gloria.
- 14 May – Pride of Baltimore is struck by a violent squall and sinks off Puerto Rico. Four crew members are lost.
- February — Museum whaleboat team defeats Australian team in Warrnambool, Australia.
- 1 June — Invasive species Dreissena Polymorpha, commonly known as the Zebra Mussel, first discovered in the Great Lakes.
- Exxon Valdez spills millions of gallons of oil off Alaskan coastline.
- 17 September — Museum whaleboat team defeats Australian team in Mystic, CT.