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U.S. Aquariums: More than just fish

Courtesy New England Aquarium

It’s as close as you’ll ever come to exploring another universe — standing in front of a massive tank filled with thousands of fish, sharks, stingrays and other creatures, you find yourself face to face with a world far away from your ordinary life.

Aquariums are favorite components of group tour itineraries in many destinations, and for good reason. At these attractions, visitors can see some of the most rare and beautiful creatures on earth and walk through habitats that replicate the environments of places such as a tropical island or the Pacific Northwest.

Today, aquariums have evolved into much more than places to stare at sea creatures behind glass. Many feature touch pools or encounter programs that allow guests to have a hands-on experience with the animals.

And groups can often get a behind-the-scenes tour, where they can see the water systems, veterinary facilities and other areas that help care for thousands of sea creatures and thrill millions of guests each year.

Georgia Aquarium

Atlanta made a giant splash on the aquarium scene five years ago with the opening of the Georgia Aquarium, the world’s largest aquarium by any metric.

“We have just over 8 million gallons of water, spread out across five permanent exhibits,” said Scott Higley, the aquarium’s vice president of marketing and communications. “That will grow to 10 million gallons spread across six exhibits later in the year when we open our new dolphin exhibit.”

The current star exhibit is the Ocean Voyager, where visitors will find such elusive creatures as manta rays and 40-foot-long whale sharks. This single tank contains 6.3 million gallons of water, providing a home for thousands of fish and other animals that live together.

In another exhibit, called Tropical Diver, the aquarium staff has grown a live coral reef and filled the tank with myriad brightly colored exotic fish.

The Cold Water Quest gallery houses beluga whales, an expanded penguin habitat and other cold-climate animals. Other areas, such as the River Scout and Georgia Explorer galleries, focus on animals that are found in various regions of the United States.

The biggest news at the Georgia Aquarium is the dolphin exhibit expansion, which will add some 100,000 square feet to the building. The exhibit should open sometime in the first half of this year.

“This is the first major expansion that we’ve done,” Higley said. “We haven’t had dolphins before, and it’s been the No. 1 most-requested feature from our guests. The demand was such that the time seemed right, so we’re adding a dolphin exhibit and theater.”

Groups visiting the aquarium can take part in behind-the-scenes tours, which include a look at the on-site veterinary teaching hospital.

Shedd Aquarium
Since it opened in 1930, the Shedd Aquarium has become one of Chicago’s predominant attractions.

“We’ve been the most-attended cultural attraction in Chicago for 14 of the last 17 years,” said public relations manager Melissa Kruth. “We have 32,500 animals representing 1,500 species. That’s one of the most diverse collections of any aquarium in the world.”

Four of the aquarium’s core exhibits date back to its 1930 opening; among them is the Caribbean Reef, a 70,000-gallon warm-water habitat that is home to Nickel, a green sea turtle that has become something of a mascot for the aquarium. Another original exhibit, Waters of the World, features an Australian lungfish named Granddad that has lived at the aquarium since 1933.

One of the newer exhibits is Amazon Rising, which takes visitors through the rise and fall of the river water during the different seasons of the Amazon rain forest. Wild Ocean Reef features the aquarium’s collection of sharks, swimming in a large tank that sweeps over the top of the visitor viewing area.

One of the most significant exhibits is the Oceanarium.

“That exhibit was built in 1990 and doubled the size of our aquarium,” Kruth said. “It’s set in the Pacific Northwest, so you have a lot of tall trees and rock work to make you feel like you’re on the Northwest coast. It’s where our beluga whales, Pacific white-sided dolphins, sea lions and sea otters live.”

In April, the aquarium will debut a new temporary exhibit on sea jellies that will run through the end of the year.

South Carolina Aquarium
Charleston, S.C.
For 10 years, the South Carolina Aquarium has given visitors to Charleston a look at the diverse topography and wildlife that make up the natural areas of the state.

“We cover South Carolina’s geography from the mountains to the sea,” said Kate Dittloff, the aquarium’s public relations manager. “We have the mountains, the Piedmont, the coastal plain and the salt marsh. All of our animals are native to South Carolina, so it’s really giving people a hands-on look at what lies within the state and what they might find in their backyards.”

Visitors can walk through each of the different re-created ecosystems to learn about the animals that live there. Along the way, they will find sharks, sea otters and sea turtles. Among the aquarium’s stars is Alabaster, one of only 50 albino alligators in the world.

This summer, the aquarium will reopen its newly renovated salt marsh aviary. This outdoor area represents a Lowcountry salt marsh with a stingray feeding area and an old-time fishing village with views of Charleston Harbor.

Groups visiting the aquarium can choose from a number of behind-the-scenes tours, including a look at its one-of-a-kind sea turtle hospital.

“We run a sea turtle rescue program,” Dittloff said. “We take sick sea turtles and help them recover, and then we hold turtle releases on area beaches. When you go to the hospital, you see these awesome, gigantic sea turtles up close.”

Aquarium of the Pacific
Long Beach, Calif.
With a focus on the watery habitats of the Pacific Ocean, the Aquarium of the Pacific has more than 11,000 different species of fish from the Southern California Baja region, the Northern Pacific region and tropical areas of the Pacific. The aquarium is known for its hands-on experiences.

“People really enjoy our shark lagoon, where they can come face to face with sharks,” said senior sales representative Sarah Castello. “We even have a touch pool where people can touch the sharks. In our lorikeet forest, the birds will come and land on you, and you can get nectar food and actually feed the lorikeets.”

Every major area of the aquarium has touch pools, and several feature diver presentations. During these activities, divers in the exhibit tanks are wired with special underwater microphones and answer guests’ questions about the animals that swim with them inside the exhibits.

One of the most popular areas of the aquarium is the newly remodeled sea otter exhibit, which now includes a waterfall and a number of interactive touch screens that give visitors more information on the animals. The Northern Pacific area of the aquarium features simulated fog, colder temperatures and a wave pool populated by an octopus and puffin penguins.

Behind-the-scenes tours give groups a look at the animal care and food prep areas.

“The tours are guided by our education department,” Castello said. “They can see how we take care of our animals in the veterinary areas or see how we prepare the food. It’s restaurant-quality fish that we feed the animals.”

Newport Aquarium
Newport, Ky.
Located just across the Ohio River from downtown Cincinnati, the Newport Aquarium is one of the principle attractions in Northern Kentucky. This million-gallon aquarium has animals spread over nine galleries.

“The star of those galleries is our Surrounded by Sharks tank,” said spokesperson Rodger Pile. “We have eight to nine species of sharks in there, as well as the shark rays. They’re amazing-looking animals and extraordinarily rare.”

found in addition to the shark exhibit, the aquarium has a jellyfish gallery that is the largest in the Midwest. The staff also recently reworked its Bizarre and Beautiful gallery, where visitors will find Pacific octopus, Japanese spider crabs, sea horses, clown fish and neon-glowing tetras.

In March, the aquarium will unveil its renovated Kingdom of the Penguins exhibit, newly outfitted with rock works and an 8,000-gallon tank. In a separate tropical area, groups have a chance to interact with warm-weather penguins.

“We offer penguin encounters, which allows a group to go back and spend some time with a biologist and the African penguins that we have,” Pile said. “You can be part of the habitat and meet these penguins. They come right up to you, and you get a chance to touch them and see how they live.”

New England Aquarium

More than 1.3 million visitors come to the New England Aquarium each year, and many of them are there to see the penguins.

“Our aquarium is most known for our 80 different penguins,” said Deb Borgwardt, the aquarium’s director of groups, events and reservations. “People from all over the world come to see our four different colonies. We have penguins from Namibia, Africa, rock hopper penguins from the southern Antarctic and little blue penguins from Australia and New Zealand.”

Visitors can see penguin-feeding demonstrations or check out the Giant Ocean Tank, where educators give presentations about the animals that come from various parts of the world. A special Northern Waters gallery highlights the sea life of the New England coast, with shore birds, giant crabs, cod, halibut, and blue and orange lobsters that hide in the exhibit’s rocks.

The aquarium offers a variety of special behind-the-scenes tours and classes for visiting groups. Group leaders can choose from presentations on sustainable fishing practices, New England lobsters or the aquarium’s animal rescue program.

“We do an animal EMT rescue and rehabilitation in the aquarium, so they can learn about how our team responds to thousands of calls about whales, dolphins, seals and sea turtles,” Borgwardt said. “They can see some of the tools that we use during the responses and see case studies of some of the animals we have rescued.”

More U.S. Aquariums:

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Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.