A Deep Dive Into the Best U.S. Aquariums
Immerse yourself in an environment unlike any other! The best underwater worlds could make for a great day trip or a fun weekend getaway for you and your family. Map out your adventures with underwater worlds and explore the top aquariums in the U.S., from coast to coast.
Starting in the center of the country, Chicago boasts one of the most vibrant and well-known aquarium destinations. The city’s Shedd Aquarium combines a diverse, global animal collection in a stunning architectural home. Upon its construction, the Shedd aimed to act as a counterpart for the two world-class institutions already in Grant Park, the Field Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago. Today, more than 32,000 animals call the Shedd Aquarium home, as it features freshwater, marine, terrestrial and even some aerial creatures. So while you check out mischievous sea otters and daring dolphins, other family members can see tiny monkeys and the world’s rarest iguana species; the Shedd opens eyes to all walks (and swimmers!) of life.
Spend time at the National Aquarium, which carries the legacy as the nation’s first of its kind. This Baltimore-based aquarium features more than 17,000 fish, birds, amphibians, reptiles and marine mammals in award-winning habitats. Its jaw-dropping exhibit is the Blacktip Reef, a floor-to-ceiling experience replicating an Indo-Pacific reef featuring more than 700 animals, including a school of blacktip reef sharks. Come face to face with the animals; then check out a slice of Australia and walk through the bottom of a river gorge exhibit that lets you get close to unique Australian animals such as flying foxes and freshwater crocodiles.
The Tennessee Aquarium, located on the scenic Chattanooga riverfront, opens your eyes to both saltwater and freshwater habitats. Discover its unique water stories through exhibits in the two Aquarium buildings, River Journey and Ocean Journey. This aquarium features the River Gorge Explorer, a relaxed, climate-controlled riverboat that lets you soak in the aquatic scenery from the observation deck while keeping an eye out for wildlife.The southeastern United States actually houses a majority of aquatic animals, such as 55 percent of all freshwater fish species, 60 percent of salamanders, 72 percent of turtles and a whopping 90 percent of mussel species from the country; the Tennessee Aquarium takes active measures to protect these species to increase a healthy wildlife population and give you the most dynamic experience as a visitor.
Head south to New Orleans and experience the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas. The Caribbean reef comes alive in a walk-through tunnel, displaying saturated colors. Get a glimpse of a different sort of life and check out penguins and Southern sea otters as they show off their entertaining charm. Touch a sting ray, feed a parakeet, and marvel at gigantic sharks, tarpon and rays in the 400,000-gallon Gulf of Mexico exhibit. Watch for sea turtles throughout the aquarium; as coordinator of the Louisiana Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Rescue Program, they prepare many of them for release into the wild.
Travel west and get caught up in underwater mysteries at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. The aquarium is in continuous pursuit to be a center of excellence for ocean literacy, and its passionate staff members play an active role in conservation and animal rehabilitation efforts. This aquarium features an interesting encounter for eight times the fun: explore the realm of the giant Pacific octopus and get a slimy handshake. The Octopus Encounters include a behind-the-scenes tour and educational information about the care of the mind-boggling invertebrate.
Experience the California coastline at the Aquarium of the Pacific, southern California’s largest aquarium. This destination spot houses more than 11,000 animals to represent the diverse, dynamic environment of the Pacific Ocean. There’s no shortage of extra activities at this marine-friendly center. The NOAA Science on a Sphere shows imagery and real-time ocean and weather data on a six-foot-diameter globe, giving you yet another way to interact with ocean life. Check out more than 150 kinds of sharks at its expansive Shark Lagoon. Then cool off on the playground, where children can have fun with a giant water-squirting squid sculpture and learn fun facts about the ocean’s most mysterious animals (and how to avoid dangerous ones!).
The best aquariums in the country know that it’s not enough to simply have the aesthetics; great care for animals is imperative, as passionate aquatic institutes highlight the importance of healthcare along with nutrition and a healthy environment for its creatures. Be sure to check out each aquarium’s website before visiting, as many offer hotel packages and special information. Also consider what type of aquatic experience you want: a whirlwind trip that lets you explore mysterious life forms? Salt water, fresh water or both? Special exhibits? Touch and feel? Unique animals? There’s something for everyone in every part of the country when it comes to unveiling the mysteries of the wide open sea. HLM
Sources: aqua.org, aquarium.org, aquariumofpacific.org, auduboninstitute.org, sheddaquarium.org, tnaqua.org, travelchannel.com and uscitytraveler.com.