Great Aquariums For Families

By Lisa Tucker McElroy

Zoe is nose to nose with a 350-pound grouper, and Abby is checking out an electric green Moray eel.  I’m being careful not to swim too close to Raphael, a 65-year old sea turtle who’s known for accidentally slapping unknowing snorkelers with her fins.  No, we’re not in Mexico or the Caribbean – we’ve come all the way to the Rockies to swim with sea creatures.

Seriously, this snorkeling adventure at Denver’s Downtown Aquarium is the highlight of our Colorado trip, especially for my school-aged daughters, who have tried the sport in ocean waters but felt intimidated trying to learn in breaking waves.  Here, in the 200,000 gallon saltwater tank, divemaster Todd Hall lets them take their time, even starting out on a Styrofoam noodle across their chests until they get the hang of breathing through a snorkel and kicking gently with the flippers.  The result?  After ten minutes in the water, the kids are swimming on their own all over the tank, blending into schools of fishes and taking photos with an underwater camera to prove to their friends that they really did get that close to a nurse shark.

Now Zoe is begging for scuba certification.  I may have created a monster, but it’s a good kind of monster, one who loves the ocean and learning about the life within it, one who’s conquered one more kind of fear, one who got quite a workout in the seawater and will sleep pretty darn well tonight in her “I Swam With the Fishes” T-shirt.

On to the exhibits!  What’s cool about Denver’s Downtown Aquarium is that it features animals in all kinds of ecosystems.  On our hour-long tour – just long enough to learn a lot, but not so long that the kids start trying to throw each other into a tank – we check out sea creatures and birds from the rainforest, coral reefs, lagoons, sunken temples, shipwrecks, beaches, and North American wilderness. There are even a couple of land exhibits with tigers and desert animals.

The Downtown Aquarium has been in Denver for years, but it was taken over by Landry’s Restaurants in 2003 and renovated.  As a result, it’s a destination in and of itself, a place where kids can see all kinds of ocean life in the exhibits, then eat next to a giant saltwater tank in the comfortable seafood-oriented restaurant.   While adults eat fish tacos or macadamia-crusted trout, the kids can feast on typical kid menu favorites, then walk around the tank and see the fish while their parents enjoy a cocktail.  The big finish?  A “Shark Attack,” a hot-out-of-the-oven brownie with a molten center that serves at least six.

Other aquariums that are worth the trip:

Monterey Bay, California – Do your kids love interactive exhibits?  This may be the place for you.  Monterey Bay boasts a 7000 square-foot splash zone with tunnels, toys, and other games for frisky kids who want to learn about marine life.  Two particular favorites here?  The otter and giant octopus exhibits.

Mystic, Connecticut- The Mystic Aquarium is notable because it’s largely outdoors, although it has plenty to do inside on cold, rainy days as well.  My kids love the shipwreck exhibit (a replica of an actual archeological site) and the Dig It! Experience, where they can “excavate” marine fossils in a simulated sand quarry and string necklaces with shark or whale teeth.

Seattle, Washington – The Seattle aquarium reopened to the public in 2007 after a remodel and expansion.  Located on the waterfront (just down from the world-famous Pike Place Market), it boasts a Sixgill Shark exhibit, marine mammals, an underwater dome, and lots of touch zones for an up-close experience.

Boston, Massachusetts – At the New England Aquarium, you can walk around and around a ramp down four stories past a viewing tank full of stingrays, sharks, and the famous Murtle the Turtle, who has been at the aquarium since before many visiting adults were born.  Don’t miss Zoe’s favorite exhibit, the Atlantic Harbor seals, or Abby’s, the beautiful and unusual seadragons.

Atlanta, Georgia – Atlanta’s Georgia Aquarium is the largest aquarium in the world, with eight million gallons of water and the most marine life outside of the ocean.  Prominently featured is Ocean Voyager, where you can walk through an acrylic tunnel and feel like you’re right in the middle of the ocean – a great experience for little ones who need to feel their feet on firm ground.  The exhibit features whale sharks, hammerheads, rays, and other scary sea creatures, all behind comforting but transparent acrylic walls.  To relax after your close marine encounter, check out the Tropical Diver exhibit, a tranquil look at a coral reef.

Lisa Tucker McElroy is an attorney, writer, law professor, and mom. Lisa is the author of nine children's books, and she regularly publishes articles and essays about travel, marriage, parenting and family in national magazines such as Parenting, Mary Engelbreit’s Home Companion, FamilyFun, Cooking with Paula Deen, and Golf Vacations. She lives in the Philadelphia area with her husband and two travel-loving daughters.

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