500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up highlights cities, museums, and trips throughout the world. The seven aquariums below represent the best North American destinations for getting close to sea life without getting wet.
What: The New England Aquarium: Four-Story Journey under the Sea
Who: All ages
Where: Boston, Massachusetts
The thing that always grabs my kids when we visit the New England Aquarium is its centerpiece, the four-story, 200,000-gallon Giant Ocean Tank. A spiral ramp encircles the tank, which contains a replica of a Caribbean coral reef, its tropical colors glowing like neon in the intentionally low light of the aquarium's cool interior. An assortment of sea creatures coexist amazingly well in the tank, everything from tiny darting tetras to hulking sea turtles and swift sharks. Part of the reason for the peace might be that scuba divers subvert the food chain, feeding those predatory sharks twice a day; my kids press their noses against the glass, marveling at the divers nonchalantly hand-feeding the sharks while sea turtles glide placidly past.
We like the fact that this downtown Boston attraction is right by the harbor -- you walk out onto the pier, in fact, to reach the floating marine mammal pavilion, Discovery, where sea lions cavort in several daily shows. Upon entering the main building, you can also buy tickets for the adjacent IMAX theater (tel. 866/815-4629 or 617/973-5206), but the really special treat is taking one of the naturalist-led harbor tours that teach science at sea; these are offered daily in the spring, summer, and fall. The city's best whale-watching tours (tel. 617/973-5206; www.neaq.org/visit/wwatch/index.html) are run by the aquarium April through October; advance reservations are strongly suggested. It takes about 3½ to 5 hours to circle out and back to the whales' feeding grounds in the Stellwegen Bank. If you've never gone out onto the water to observe those great monarchs of the ocean, jump on the chance.
At busy times, the aquarium has an awful lot of people milling about on those dimly lit ramps -- in July and August, try to make this your first stop of the morning, especially on weekends, for huge afternoon crowds can make getting around painfully slow.
Contact: Central Wharf (tel. 617/973-5200; www.newenglandaquarium.org).
What: Mystic Aquarium's Underwater Mysteries
Who: All ages
Where: Mystic, Connecticut, USA
In a traditional seafaring town like Mystic, Connecticut, the locals have probably spent more time trying to catch fish than considering how to display them in big glass-sided tanks to entrance visitors -- 150 years ago, a whale was something to provide oil for lamps and bones for ladies' corsets, not something to watch at feeding times. Times and tastes change, however, and nowadays the Mystic Aquarium ties in beautifully to the town's maritime atmosphere, making a surprisingly natural complement to the Mystic Seaport .
One of things we like best about the Mystic Aquarium is that several of its exhibits are outside, a pleasant contrast to some urban aquariums where you spend the entire visit indoors. In the outdoor Alaskan Coast, five beluga whales squeal and twirl and otherwise perform for their trainers at feeding time. Next door is a facsimile of the Bering Strait's Pribilof Islands, home to fur seals and endangered Steller sea lions, and out back are African black-footed penguins, with underwater viewing windows. If you want to drop a bundle on a really special experience, phone well in advance of your trip and reserve a one-on-one session with a penguin ($62) or a whale ($162). I must say, I'll never forget what it felt like to stroke a whale's velvety fin and touch its tender tongue.
What sets Mystic Aquarium apart is its collaboration with Dr. Robert Ballard of the Institute for Exploration, whose claim to fame (and it's a biggie) is that he discovered the submerged wreckage of the Titanic. As a result, the Aquarium now has museum-like exhibits on topics in deep-sea archaeology -- the search for Noah's Ark; John F. Kennedy and PT 109 -- which actually make welcome diversions from looking at endless tanks of underwater wildlife.
Contact: 55 Coogan Blvd. (tel. 860/572-5955; www.mysticaquarium.org).
What: The National Aquarium: Getting Watery in Baltimore
Who: All ages
Where: Baltimore, Maryland
Anchoring one end of Baltimore's Inner Harbor attractions, the National Aquarium lured us into its air-conditioned corridors on a steamy summer afternoon, when the idea of wandering past rippling tanks full of fish was too delicious to pass up. As we climbed from one level to another, we realized we weren't just walking by wall tanks, we were walking through glass tunnels, immersed in the underwater experience. A few minutes ago, we'd been sweating; now we felt as if we'd just taken a refreshing swim.
Shoehorned onto its corner of pier, this brilliant aquarium makes a virtue of its vertically stacked location by giving each floor its own theme. It starts on the ground floor with a delightfully gruesome 250,000-gallon tank of dangerous-looking stingrays and sharks, hooking my sons instantly. The next level up handled the local Chesapeake ecosystem, tracing the course of the water cycle from a fresh-water pond down through tidal marshes (full of the famous Maryland blue crabs) out to the coastal beach, where long-distance currents wash some surprisingly tropical species past the Chesapeake. Level 3 could have been subtitled Freak Show of the Seas, where the kids hovered in fascination to see some of the ocean's most bizarre adaptations -- the octopus, the electric eel, the ancient-looking sturgeon. Also on Level 3, we sampled a contrasting pair of exotic climes -- frosty North Atlantic sea cliffs where adorable puffins scuttled around, and a long acrylic wall representing an Amazon river forest, full of odd creatures from the giant river turtle to the pygmy marmoset, the world's smallest monkey. (Hey, who said an aquarium was only for fish?)
On the way back down to the lobby, we passed through the doughnut-shaped Coral Reef, where vivid tropical species flitted on all sides of us, and then the darkened Open Ocean tank, where sharks glided menacingly overhead. At feeding time in the coral reef, the divers always draw a crowd. A covered bridge leads from the main hall to the Marine Mammal Pavilion, where we could watch the obligatory dolphin "presentation" (the PC term for shows; reserve a seat when you pay your admission at no additional fee).
Contact: 501 E. Pratt St. (tel. 410/576-3800; www.aqua.org).
What: Miami Seaquarium: Laid-Back Dolphins in the Lagoon
Who: All ages
Where: Miami, Florida, USA
Down in Florida, where it's shirt-sleeve weather year-round, you can slather on sunblock and enjoy your aquariums outdoors, with wide-open views of the real ocean just behind the exhibits. I'm not talking about the behemoth SeaWorld up in Orlando -- I much prefer Miami's Seaquarium, which is more compact, is less grandiose, and doesn't gouge you for souvenirs and over-priced food every time you turn around.
Like SeaWorld, Seaquarium is big on performing animal shows -- four theaters are the focal points of this 35-acre site; plan your visit to take in all four shows if you can. Having grown up with the TV series Flipper (the 1960s version, I must admit), I enjoyed the Flipper Show, which stars gray bottlenose dolphins in the very same lagoon used to film the 1990s series. The killer whale show was blessedly free of Shamu pomposity, and a pack of sea lions dove, barked, and clapped their hearts out for us in their own show. A handful of landscaped exhibits are clustered around the four theaters -- you do a whole lot less hiking here than you do at Seaworld -- from a pond full of flamingos to an indoor coral reef tank to a simulated mangrove forest to river shallows teeming with Nile crocodiles (oddly, not American alligators). The kids were suitably creeped out to stand surrounded by a circular channel full of swift sharks, but our favorite exhibit of all featured the manatees -- Seaquarium is a leader in the campaign to save this endangered species.
My daughter and I added on a trip to Parrot Jungle Island, 1111 Parrot Jungle Trail (tel. 305/372-3822; www.parrotjungle.com), which in 2003 moved from its kitschy old coral-rock South Miami home to a new $46-million site on Watson Island, along the MacArthur Causeway near Miami Beach. Never having been to the old classic, we really enjoyed the new digs, 19 acres of protected bird sanctuary featuring trails, aviaries, a sepentarium full of reptiles and amphibians, and a boardwalk trail winding through a simulated Everglades landscape. Flying overhead are hundreds of parrots, macaws, peacocks, cockatoos, and flamingos. Continuous shows star roller-skating cockatoos, card-playing macaws, and numerous stunt-happy parrots -- and you should know by now that my kids and I are suckers for that sort of thing.
Contact: 4400 Rickenbacker Causeway (tel. 305/361-5705; www.miamiseaquarium.com).
What: Shedd Aquarium: Splendor on the Lake
Who: All ages
Where: Chicago, Illinois, USA
The setting is magnificent to start with -- a Beaux ArtsÂ?style marble octagon right on the shore of Lake Michigan, at the south end of lovely Grant Park. But the Shedd is the world's largest indoor aquarium, and in this case size does matter. Thousands of fish, reptiles, amphibians, and marine mammals inhabit this lakeside palace, all gorgeously displayed. I can't rave enough about it.
The aquarium's centerpiece is a 90,000-gallon circular tank in the central rotunda, where vividly colored fish, sharks, and stingrays swirl around an immense replica of a Caribbean coral reef. An underwater camera and audio system pipe close-up views and sound effects out to eager crowds of spectators, which turn daily hand-feedings by a staff diver into an interactive show. It's hard to tear ourselves away from that reef, but we know by now that there are another 80-some tanks in adjacent rooms to peer into, all of them fascinating samples of marine habitats around the world, from Lake Tanganyika to the Red Sea to the nearby Fox River in Illinois. An entire exhibit focuses just on the dramatic seasonal fluctuations of the Amazon basin (look out for the piranhas and anacondas).
If you opt for the aquarium-only ticket, however, you miss my favorite part: the Oceanarium, a simply stunning recreation of a rocky stretch of Pacific Northwest coast, backed by a wall of windows looking out onto the vast sparkling waters of Lake Michigan (the Oceanarium is closed now, but is scheduled to re-open in summer 2009). My family is happy to sit here, dreamily gazing over the "coast," observing otters and seals and listening to the Pacific white-sided dolphins frolic in their holding pool. The other "extra" exhibit is the Wild Reef, a series of 26 interconnected habitats that house a Philippine coral reef patrolled by sharks and other predators. Floor-to-ceiling tank walls bring those menacing creatures up close, maybe too close (they even swim over your head at certain spots) -- it's reassuring to find out how thick that acrylic wall is. Just making sure.
Contact: 1200 S. Lake Shore Dr. (tel. 312/939-2438; www.sheddaquarium.org).
What: Monterey Bay Aquarium: Finding New Depths on the California Coast
Who: All ages
Where: Monterey, California, USA
My punster son declared that he wanted to see a manta ray in Monterey -- well, we didn't, but we saw stingrays, jaguar rays, bat rays, cownose rays, and a spider web ray, and we got almost giddy with the fun we were having. As a die-hard fan of big exhibit aquariums, I have to say this northern California stunner is probably my favorite.
Yes, it's huge, with more than 350,000 marine animals and plants on display, and it has two truly awesome big tanks you can gaze at for hours -- the million-gallon Outer Bay tank, populated by yellowfin tuna, large green sea turtles, barracuda, sharks, giant ocean sunfish, and schools of bonito; and the three-story Kelp Forest with its stunning view of leopard sharks and other sea creatures lacing through the leaves of a towering kelp forest. But we all know size doesn't matter. What stirred me was how this glorious facility's displays highlight the sheer beauty of sea creatures -- the feathery flutter of jellyfish, the supple grace of rays, the quicksilver flash of anchovies, sardines, and mackerel swimming in massive schools.
The site of this great aquarium was not chosen at random. It sits on the border of one of the largest underwater canyons on earth (wider and deeper than the Grand Canyon) and is surrounded by incredibly diverse marine life. One wing concentrates on the Ocean's Edge, exploring the kelp forest and coral reefs and other habitats of Monterey Bay -- there's even a coastal aviary, reminding us that plovers and pipers and other shorebirds are part of the marine equation. Touch pools abound here, along with the ever-popular penguin exhibit. The other wing focuses on the deep waters of the Outer Bay, where the fish get bigger, more colorful, and in some cases more predatory. It seems that at any given moment, there's a naturalist somewhere in the building leading a demonstration or narrating a feeding event, and on either end of the second floor are hands-on learning areas for younger children. Between the two wings, near the entrance, a few absolutely adorable sea otters frolic in a two-story habitat.
Contact: 886 Cannery Row (tel. 800/756-3737 or 831/648-4800; www.mbayaq.org).
What: Vancouver Aquarium: Baby Beluga in B.C.
Who: All ages
Where: Vancouver, British Columbia
Vancouver's most essential site for families is Stanley Park, a 400-hectare (1,000-acre) peninsula of British Columbian rainforest, with hiking trails, beaches, a miniature train, a water park, and incredible ocean views on every side. But don't let yourselves get too distracted -- be sure to set aside a good 2½: hours for the biggest attraction in the park, the Vancouver Aquarium. Looking at the ocean is one thing; at this aquarium you'll come to understand the ocean, which is another thing entirely.
The aquarium has been designed to be as hands-on as possible for children; rocklike stoops are provided for small folks to get a better view into fish tanks. Regal angelfish glide through a re-creation of an Indonesian coral reef; blacktip sharks scour the waters of the Tropical Gallery. The Pacific Canada exhibit is dedicated to indigenous sea life -- you almost feel you can reach out and touch the sturgeon, wolf eel, rockfish, salmon, or the thousands of flashing silvery herring that flit past. The stroll-through Amazon Gallery is another standout, a thickly planted humid environment with turtles, piranhas, tropical birds, leering crocodiles, an anaconda snake, the prehistoric-looking arapaima fish, and two-toed sloths dangling motionless from the trees.
The Vancouver aquarium's truly unique feature is the BC Salmon Stream Project, which consists of a channel running up from Coal Harbour to the aquarium, designed for salmon to return upstream from the open ocean to spawn. When it is completed, the salmon, guided by a special imprinted scent, should find their way home over thousands of kilometers and wind up in the salmon display pool inside the aquarium.
Contact: Stanley Park (tel. 604/659-3552; www.vanaqua.org).
This article is an excerpt from 500 Places to Take Your Kids Before They Grow Up, available in our Online Bookstore now. Author Holly Hughes has traveled the globe as an editor and writer -- she's the former executive editor of Fodor's Travel Publications, the series editor of Frommer's Irreverent Guides, and author of Frommer's New York City with Kids. She's also written fiction for middle graders and edits the annual Best Food Writing anthology. New York City makes a convenient jumping-off place for her travels with her three children and husband.