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American aquariums make a splash

Courtesy Tennessee Aquarium

Tennessee Aquarium
Chattanooga, Tennessee
Tennessee Aquarium offers hands-on programs year-round, but the aquarium rolls out its Keeper Kids program this month to tap into families with children on spring break.

From March 15 to April 15, children may choose two of the 17 different behind-the-scenes activities, some of which are feeding otters, trout, turtles and birds; releasing butterflies; or meeting the aquarium veterinarian. Each activity lasts about 15 to 20 minutes, and the Keeper Kids program is free with aquarium admission.

“Our staff enjoys these almost as much as the families,” said Thom Benson, communications manager for the aquarium. “The kids’ reactions make it so worthwhile. They really have a ball with it.”

The Tennessee Aquarium also recently added a Backstage Pass tour at each of its two buildings: River Journey and Ocean Journey. Guides take visitors to keeper-only areas such as the food preparation room, where guests learn what it takes to feed 10,000 animals a day, or the quarantine room, where visitors may see some newborn animals. During one of the 45-minute tours, guests also can help feed otters or go above the penguin exhibit to observe the birds, Benson said.

The aquarium has also partnered with the National Wildlife Federation to create Ranger Rick’s Backyard Safari, a gallery where children and adults can encounter animals — maybe a legless lizard or a groundhog or a Eurasian eagle owl — during several staged programs throughout the day.

“We’re really trying to fuel that passion for nature on a very personal level,” Benson said. “Hopefully, they carry that home with them.”

Shedd Aquarium
When Shedd Aquarium underwent renovations in 2009, the project added a new private area where guests can get close to a beluga whale. But watch out: They spit.

“You are literally nose-to-nose with the beluga whales,” said Andrea Smalec, vice president of communications and public relations at the aquarium. “They are very charismatic animals. To be able to look at one right in the eye — or get spit on — it creates a connection that no online video could.”

During a Beluga Encounter, up to six guests put on waders and go hip-deep into the whale pool to learn how trainers work with the whales, and participate in giving the belugas cues, such as asking them to vocalize, Smalec said.

The beluga program is one of several Extraordinary Experiences that Shedd Aquarium offers, but one of the aquarium’s most popular programs is the Penguin Encounter. Up to 10 visitors meet and touch a Magellanic penguin as they learn about the birds’ habitat, behavior and population.

Behind-the-scenes tours take groups beyond exhibit glass to learn about food preparation, feeding and breeding programs and to observe medical procedures through the animal hospital’s viewing windows. The tour also allows guests to see unique architectural details of the original part of the aquarium, which opened in 1930.

Shedd’s Trainer for a Day program is limited to four people per day, but the four-hour session allows participants to experience the lives of marine trainers as they work with belugas, dolphins, sea otters, sea lions and penguins.

Virginia Aquarium
Virginia Beach, Virginia
Virginia Aquarium is one of the few aquariums in the United States where people can interact with harbor seals.

Seal Splash allows up to four people to get into the water with a trainer and meet a seal or two. The 90-minute program takes participants into the Harbor Seal area, where they learn about training techniques, conservation efforts and animal adaptations before wading into the water to touch a seal, which will speak, splash and wave.

“People are totally wowed by that experience,” said Joan Barns, the aquarium’s public relations manager. “I think having that hands-on experience makes them so much more aware of the conservation of those animals.”

The aquarium offers guests who don’t care to wade into the water an opportunity to encounter harbor seals during Seals Behind the Scenes. During each session, up to eight people go into the Harbor Seal area, where they can meet and touch the seals.

During the Sea Turtles Behind the Scenes program, visitors can also go to the top of the sea turtle aquarium to get a closer look at five large sea turtles and their feeding session.

Above and Beyond tours take guests to the top of the sea turtle aquarium and either the shark tank or the Red Sea tunnel aquarium to learn what it takes to care for and feed the animals and maintain their habitats.

“I think it’s a real eye-opener for people to go behind the scenes and see how the animals are cared for,” Barns said.

Virginia Aquarium also offers several boat excursions led by staff or volunteers that take visitors off the coast of Virginia Beach to observe whales and bottlenose dolphins in their natural habitat. Other options include a cruise into Owls Creek Salt Marsh, the last undeveloped salt marsh in Virginia Beach, to learn about the ecosystem and wildlife.

Rachel Carter

Rachel Carter worked as a newspaper reporter for eight years and spent two years as an online news editor before launching her freelance career. She now writes for national meetings magazines and travel trade publications.