THE OCEANS contain 97% of the Earth’s water, cover 71% of the world’s surface and encompass 99% of the planet’s living space. Educating humans about this vital piece of their existence is an imperative taken up by aquariums around the world. No longer just a place to watch colorful fish flash along on their endless glides, aquariums are involved in education, conservation and restoration of aquatic habitats.
The ocean sustains all life on Earth. From the air we breathe to the seafood we eat, survival depends on healthy seas. Due to extensive research at these facilities, the ocean is increasingly seen as a potential source of life-saving medicines.
To witness what’s happening at these remarkable institutions, plan a visit to the top seaside aquariums accessible by boat.
Touch rays, pet sea stars, meet a lobster and cradle a hermit crab.
The Blue Planet—as the waterfront aquarium calls itself—is home to Boston celebrity Myrtle, the green sea turtle that’s about 95 years old. Visitors also see shark species from around the world, touch rays, pet sea stars, meet a lobster and cradle a hermit crab. Frisky northern fur seals fly through the water at the marine mammal exhibit at one of only three U.S. facilities caring for these creatures.
At the Indo-Pacific coral reef, the exhibit showcases the ocean’s most dazzling colors, and guests learn the vital role reefs play in the marine world. The aquarium is actively involved in creating protected areas in the Central Pacific and Mesoamerican Reef off Central America. The aquarium’s Whale Watch tour to nearby Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary offers sightings of humpback, finback, minke, pilot and right whales, as well as white-sided dolphins.
Whether you’re touching a ray, feeling the splash of a beluga whale, going beak-to-nose with a penguin or exploring Jurassic Giants dinosaur exhibit, close encounters happen every day at Mystic Aquarium. Bizarre and fascinating creatures such as the giant Pacific octopus and giant Japanese spider crabs reside here, and it’s the only U.S. facility caring for Steller sea lions.
The compact space is packed with megatons of sea life in the form of 3,000 pound, adorably goofy beluga whales. Mystic Aquarium, a leader in beluga research, care and behaviors, hosted an international conference on beluga whale research in 2019. For a memorable beluga moment, go waist-deep in the Arctic Coast Exhibit with an animal care professional!
Rated one of the top three aquariums in the country, National Aquarium takes visitors on a journey from an Australian river gorge to a rain forest canopy, an Indo-Pacific reef and beyond. Get up close to 20,000 unique animals in award-winning exhibits to discover what binds these varied ecosystems and animals together — water. Some of the most iconic animal species include Atlantic puffins, long-snout seahorses and pig-nosed turtles. The breathtaking Jellies Invasion Exhibit features nine species of these prehistoric survivors that have existed for at least 500 million years.
The facility offers behind the scenes events from family sleepovers to diving with dolphins. Aquarium guests can also explore the Animal Care & Rescue Center, which is home to off exhibit, quarantined and rescued animals. Guided tours show how the aquarium cares for these animals, and guests experience hands-on activities including a turtle feeding and a mock animal operation.
Florida Aquarium presents a voyage that begins with a drop of water from one of Florida’s many freshwater springs and ends in the Keys’ open waters. Sights include a large simulated wetlands environment, shallow bays and beaches, and a coral reef ecosystem encompassed in half a million gallons of seawater.
Learn about indigenous wildlife such as alligators and pelicans on the Wetlands Trail or non-native species in the Madagascar lemur habitat. Conservation efforts focus on disappearing coral reefs, sea turtles and dwindling sand tiger sharks in Tampa Bay, the Gulf of Mexico, the Keys and Cuba.
You can book a memorable experience to see and touch African penguins as they waddle and shake their tails. Or take the Wild Dolphin Cruise to spot wild dolphins.
Where to Dock: Tampa Marriott Waterside Resort & Marina or Marjorie Park Yacht Basin
More than a world-class aquarium and conservation center, the Shedd is a National Historic Landmark. Its 1927 Beaux-Arts building on Lake Michigan has a dome with a 4,500 square-foot skylight topped by Neptune’s trident.
From feeling the skin of a sturgeon to watching penguins fly underwater, amazing sights are everywhere. At Home on the Great Lakes Exhibit encourages you to touch a dinosaur- era lake sturgeon and see an alligator snapping turtle. The Great Lakes are but one of 77 marine habitats in the Waters of the World Exhibit populated by mountain horned dragons, violet-line piranhas and the giant Pacific octopus. Other options include beluga encounters, virtual dives with Caribbean reef sharks and a chance to enjoy live jazz, cocktails and skyline views with aquatic residents on summer evenings.
Long Beach, CA
This small but mighty aquarium has made its mark in husbandry history as the first aquarium in the world to breed weedy sea dragon babies, now on view along with seahorses in the Tropical Pacific Gallery. It was also the first U.S. aquarium to raise Helvola sea nettles, on display at the Northern Pacific Gallery.
Described by Jacques Cousteau as the world’s aquarium, the Gulf of California is one of the most biologically productive and diverse seas and is well represented in the 18 exhibits of the Southern California/Baja Gallery. Catch a glimpse of the vivid orange garibaldi, balloonfish, Cortez rainbow wrasses and king angelfish.
Where to Dock: Alamitos Bay Marina
The aquarium’s superstars and beneficiaries of some of its conservation efforts are the adorable, irresistible sea otters. Through their unique surrogacy program —pairing orphans with adult females — they raise and release stranded pups and are having a profound impact on sea otter survival. Go to the website and decide which of the resident otters you most resemble!
Other star exhibits are the kelp forest, a three-story tank occupied by
rockfish, octopus and leopard sharks, and the jellyfish gallery with its gossamer floaters. Feel the force at the Wave Crash Tunnel, where 600 gallons of simulated surf churn every 30 seconds. The newest special exhibition, ¡Viva Baja! Life on the Edge, features the slithery, the scaly, the spectacularly showy animals from Baja’s deserts, coral reefs and mangrove forests.