Big Fish in a Little Pond: The Nation’s Best Aquariums

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Big Fish in a Little Pond: The Nation’s Best Aquariums

Although I’ve been snorkeling countless times in the waters of Hawaii and the Caribbean, I still always get a little nervous right before I put my mask on and jump into the deep blue. Once in the water, I relax a little, but I’m still very careful not to get too close to any undesirable fish (read: eels) or to touch the coral. Perhaps this fear is one of the reasons I enjoy visiting aquariums as much as I do. Inside the safe confines of the aquarium walls, I can take my time and carefully examine the colorful fins of the fish or the circular suction cups on the underbelly of an octopus. Aquariums provide us the opportunity to get a rare glimpse inside the lives of extraordinary deep-sea life, and these five aquariums go the extra mile.

John G. Shedd Aquarium, Chicago, Illinois
Containing over 25,000 fish and over 1,500 species, the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago houses a vast array of animals such as Australian lungfish, Grand Cayman blue iguanas, mangrove whiptail rays, and frogfish. The facility is known as the first inland aquarium with a permanent saltwater fish collection and has an Oceanarium attached to it with a three-million-gallon tank, making it the largest indoor marine mammal facility in the world. The Oceanarium contains marine mammals such as Pacific white-sided dolphins and a collection of sea otters, many of which were rescued from the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. And in December of 2009, the aquarium welcomed its newest member: a baby beluga whale. Some of the most popular exhibits include Waters of the World and Amazon Rising, where you’re likely to run into a few anacondas, piranhas, and crocodiles.

Oregon Coast Aquarium, Newport, Oregon
Perhaps best known for being the interim home for Keiko the orca whale, the star of the 1993 movie Free Willy, the Oregon Coast Aquarium is unique in that much of the exhibit focuses especially on the flora and fauna that is native to the Oregon coast. One example is the snowy plover, a small wader bird. This bird, of which the Pacific Coast population has recently been designated a threatened species, calls the aquarium home. Keiko’s former tank houses the aquarium’s largest exhibit, Passages of the Deep, where visitors walk through a series of acrylic tubes that are surrounded by large sharks and bat rays. In March of 2010, OregonLive.com reported that two sea lion pups were found stranded in Southern California and were taken to the aquarium. Both the pups were blind in one eye and therefore unable to hunt successfully for food. They’re now residents at the aquarium.

National Aquarium, Baltimore, Maryland
The National Aquarium in Baltimore, Maryland contains over 16,500 animals and more than 660 species like the pig-nosed turtle, the yellow-headed Amazon parrot, and the electric eel. The Aquarium, which Coastal Magazine rated as the top Aquarium in the country in 2006, features the popular exhibit, Jellies Invasion: Oceans out of Balance, which focuses on the link between jellyfish behavior and environmental change. The aquarium’s Web site explains, “Because of recent changes to [jellies’] populations, we now find that jellies are changing the balance of Earth’s aquatic ecosystems.”


Georgia Aquarium, Atlanta, Georgia
Encompassing more than 550,000 square feet and containing more than 8.1 million gallons of water with over sixty exhibits and approximately 100,000 different fish and animals, the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta is the world’s largest aquarium. You can find animals such as the African penguin, the spotted wobbegong, and the Amazon milk frog there. The facility, which was almost entirely funded with a donation by Home Depot co-founder, Bernie Marcus, opened to the public in November 2005 and is famous for being the only aquarium outside of Asia to exhibit whale sharks, which are kept in a 6.3-million-gallon tank. It’s also one of only two aquariums to house hammerhead sharks. It currently features a Journey with Gentle Giants program, where visitors have the chance to swim with the resident whale sharks.

Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey, California
Located in a former sardine cannery along one of California’s most sublime coastlines, many consider the Monterey Bay Aquarium an institution of the state of California. A combination of more than 550 species of plants and animals, including blackfooted penguins, dinner plate jellyfish, giant Pacific octopuses, and a range of highly creative, innovative design solutions, this facility stands as a leader among other marine wildlife education facilities. Most notable is the aquariums’ basic use of surrounding water in the Bay. The aquarium pumps about 2,000 gallons per minute through more than 100 tanks, flushing out “old” water during the day to give better clarity for viewing and filtering in “new” water that brings in plankton for feeding. This technology of circulating water from the Bay helped the aquarium successfully grow California giant kelp, making it the first in the world to exhibit a living kelp forest. Some of the aquarium’s most recent exhibits include The Secret Lives of Seahorses, which includes more than fifteen species, and Hot Pink Flamingos: Stories of Hope in a Changing Sea.

In all its vastness, the ocean is full of glorious and sometimes unexpected creatures. Many people strongly argue that it’s the only place that marine animals are meant to be, but when we’re faced with continued environmental issues—most pointedly the recent oil spill—aquariums can offer a safe and wonderful alternative home for our creatures of the sea.