By Patricia Hall, FairfaxFamilyFun.com
The National Aquarium is a source of pride for our region: this huge facility at Maryland’s Inner Harbor has won multiple awards – including being named one of the best aquariums in the United States by the Travel Channel in 2012 and frequently making “best of” lists for places to take kids – and it’s no surprise. The Aquarium holds more than 2,200,000 of water, and has more than 17,000 specimens representing more than 750 species. Its 14 permanent exhibits featuring animals from around the world teach guests about the oceans, coral reefs, the Amazon River, an Australian river gorge, a tropical rainforest, and more.
Here, you will find sharks, Atlantic bottlenose dolphins, jellyfish, crabs, octopuses, horseshoes, turtles, snakes, stingrays, eels, various birds, and many other animals, including, of course, all manners of fish (you actually can see a detailed list of the aquarium’s animals and where they are so you don’t miss them during your visit).
This is not the sort of place that you can visit for just a couple of hours. Just touring the exhibits could take you all day, and when you add in watching the dolphins play, attending a presentation, or enjoying a movie come to life in the 4-D theatre, it makes for more than a full day. (In fact, you probably need at least a couple of visits to feel like you have seen it all).
In addition to seeing the usual animal exhibits, you can take part in daily events to learn more. Educator Talks during the days give you insights from an animal expert, while Animal Encounters and Critter Chats let you get up close and personal to one of the animals; all of these are included in your regular admission.
Guests also can buy tickets for a behind-the-scenes tour where you can learn even more and see parts of the aquarium the public doesn’t get to see. We recently took part in the “Shark! Behind-the-Scenes Tour” and that will be the focus of this article. These activities (there are at least six offered at any given time) cost extra. With so much to do at the aquarium already, why should you add on extra time and extra costs with a tour? Simply put: you will see the aquarium from a different perspective, learn more, and get a better sense for the work the staff does.
National Aquarium admission is $39.95 for adults, $24.95 for children age 3-11, and $34.95 for seniors 65 and up. That price may be high for some people (especially larger families) but this is a place where you could spend all day and thoroughly enjoy every moment of it. Open for a total of eight to nine hours Sundays through Thursdays and 11 hours on Saturdays and Sundays, you have plenty of time to explore and get your money’s worth, but again, the longer you spend there, the more value you will get (PS – go on a Friday evening to enjoy half-off admission!).
Splurging for one of the immersion tours brings the ticket price to $65 per person (which includes standard aquarium admission). What do you get for the extra fees? For starters, a behind-the-scenes look at the aquarium – accessing areas that are otherwise off-limits to the general public – learning about an aspect of aquatic life from a knowledgeable staff member in a more intimate setting, since tour groups are small. You also get “warm and fuzzy” points knowing that your contribution is helping support educational and conservation programs at this non-profit aquarium.
Our tour was open to guests ages eight and up (as most of the immersion tours are), and it’s easy to see why: these are meant to be educational and highly informative events, so participants, even the youngest ones, should have a good attention span. Because you are accessing parts of the museum that are actually work areas, the tour also requires participants to use good judgment. And finally, you need to be sure kids are mature enough and well-behaved: after all, you are literally going to walk over the shark tank!
Yes, I am going to skip right over to the most fascinating part: on this tour, you also can – if you dare! – walk the catwalk above Shark Alley, where sharks swim silently below! This was a brief but very cool portion of the tour, and not just for the obvious reasons. Of course it is exciting to be walking on a narrow bridge right above the tank, where you can see the sharks closer than you probably ever will be able to do (or want to do!). But it’s also neat to realize that you are on the inside of the tank glass, with other aquarium guests on the other side, walking around with no idea that you are there. It was surprising just how quiet and serene it was. And yes, being in the shark tank made me want to crack jokes about pitching a business idea, but I refrained… remember, I said you should be mature on this tour. 😉
The shark tank portion happens about halfway through the tour. By then, we had a good bit of knowledge about sharks from our earlier walk through the aquarium’s public areas, including the newest exhibit, Blacktip Reef, which features these fast-moving creatures. Among the many sharks we saw were largetooth sawfish, nurse sharks, and sand tiger sharks (see the variety of sharks the aquarium has and read about them here).
Of course, any visitor to the aquarium can see these and read about them in the many signs throughout. We had the bonus of having a dedicated tour leader who was very knowledgeable about the animals and passionate about their care. Throughout our tour, Dee emphasized how sharks are not to be feared (they have gotten a “bad rap” because of movies and isolated but high-profile incidents) as much as they are to be appreciated. Dee was great about taking our questions, and my mom, who was visiting us that week, noted that our guide obviously loved her job.
A neat thing about these tours is that each person gets a headset with a small receiver so that the guide can speak in a normal voice and the sound is amplified through your receiver, and not a regular microphone. This means you can hear him or her clearly even on a busy day without interfering with other guests, since what they hear is just the tour leader speaking at a regular volume. The microphone system also helps you to hear instructions from the tour leader about where your group is headed next.
While you are visiting the reef area, you may feel a bit rushed, but that’s because the tour goes through these public spaces quickly before heading for the behind-the-scenes portion. Of course, you can go back to the main areas after your tour to see them at your own pace. In all, the immersion tour lasts one-and-a-half hours.
After we viewed the tanks from the outside (and the inside!) it was time to see where the work happens. Our tour included visits to the kitchen and health stations. First, we visited the food prep area, where we learned how shark diets are carefully prepared and monitored.
This is a huge kitchen with a large walk-in refrigerators and freezers. Because we had not had time for lunch prior to our 1:30 tour, by then we were starving. You wouldn’t believe how yummy shark food can look then! Actually, much of what we saw was jumbo shrimp and fresh vegetables, so… yeah. Even the red peppers (saved for Calypso the turtle) looked great.
Our next stop was one of the labs where the staff conducts research and inspects animals. This provided us with a great opportunity to ask the staff about the shark’s health and about veterinary and wildlife issues in general. We even saw, in another area, where and how they bring sharks into and out of the tank and how they weigh them.
In all, it was an interesting look at all that it takes to maintain the aquarium’s animals – and of course this was just a part of it. Immersion tours are not for everyone: they are not cheap, and they add to your visit time, so go only if you are truly interested in the subject matter or looking for a more personal and educational museum experience, or to show your support for the aquarium. The minimum age means nothing, of course, if your child does not have the interest, temperament, or maturity to follow along and remain engaged. That said, the tour definitely went well for us, our son enjoyed it, and Dee was great with taking his questions (he was the only child in our tour group of six people). The tour also was a good reminder that although we think of the National Aquarium primarily as a tourist attraction, this is a facility that is about conservation and education, themes that continued until the very end: at the conclusion of our tour, we got some souvenir (and perfectly sized) reusable water bottles and were told how the museum does not sell disposable water bottles.
Speaking of drinks, by then we were starving so we went to get lunch. Although the National Aquarium is right at Inner Harbor, which boasts great restaurants, we wanted to waste no time so we had lunch in the aquarium’s cafeteria, and we were pleasantly surprised. Yes, we were hungry and that might have affected our perception, but even in retrospect I can appreciate the variety of food and what a good value it was, more so than at most similar facilities: here the selection was good, the portions generous, and the prices reasonable.
After lunch, we continued our museum visit, first taking a break outside of the theatre, where giant screens near the ticket booth show beautiful ocean scenes, and then inside to enjoy some 4-D films (we saw both Sea Monsters and Spongebob Squarepants). If you’re familiar with a 4-D film, you already know that this is a 3-D movie with the added dimension of effects you can feel: your seat may shake, you make get splashed a bit, and you’ll experience other fun surprises.
Then we spent the rest of our time mostly checking out the Tropical Rainforest, Dolphin Discovery, and the mesmerizing Jelly Invasion: this is as close as I’d ever want to get to a jellyfish (ouch!) but they are fascinating to watch, and the combination of lights in the exhibit, the jellyfish structures, and the animals’ movements make for a very peaceful vibe. Check out some our photos of these exhibits below.
Disclosure: my group received complimentary aquarium admission and immersion tour tickets to facilitate this review. We paid our other expenses on our own. This post reflects the personal opinions of the author.
All photos (c) P. Hall